It cost Fulton County nearly $578,255 to convict Claud “Tex” McIver of murder earlier this year, more than the then-extraordinary $550,000 that Cobb County spent to successfully prosecute Justin Ross Harris in 2016.
Both cases were tried under intense media scrutiny and featured weeks of testimony and evidence from the state.
But there were also major differences that, when considered, might cause some to wonder why Fulton’s tab was in the same stratosphere as Cobb’s.
The Harris trial had to be moved to Glynn County after a judge ruled the Marietta father accused of intentionally locking his son inside a hot car to die couldn’t receive a fair trial in metro Atlanta. Cobb was on the hook for housing and feeding the attorneys, the judge and the witnesses alike. Overall, the change of venue accounted for $149,000 of the overall trial cost, according to public records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Another $275,000 went to Harris’ court-appointed attorneys. McIver funded his own defense. That’s a $424,024 difference — money Cobb taxpayers had to spend that Fulton taxpayers were spared.
But all things being equal, the Harris conviction looks like a bargain. Subtracting the cost of Harris’ defense and the venue change, Cobb spent more than four times less what Fulton spent to convict McIver.
“(Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard) spent like he was Diane McIver,” said Atlanta attorney Esther Panitch, referring to the victim in the case whose wardrobe included more than 100 fur coats.
Howard acknowledged the cost of McIver's trial was way “outside the norm” — a typical murder conviction costs his office $5,000 — but defended the final price tag, a key contributor to his office ending 2018 more than $1 million over budget.
As a result, he has been prohibited from hiring more any more attorneys even though he has 11 openings, plus one administrative position. Howard is seeking nearly $1.4 million in additional funds from commissioners for this year's budget, a figure he is likely to get.
Fulton’s longtime top prosecutor was not asked for a thorough accounting of his spending on McIver; The AJC has filed an open records request seeking those documents.
Howard attributed the high cost to a number of additional expenses his office isn’t used to paying. For example, his team seized thousands of items, including computers, from McIver’s various properties. Normally, he said, his office would be responsible to decide what was admissible in court. For this trial, he said, an independent contractor had to be used to filter privileged information.
Additionally, he said, the department had to secure a number of expert witnesses, including sleep experts, to win the case, Howard said. And they had to expend additional dollars to build exhibits, such as a replica of the interior of McIver’s SUV.
He said the department’s yearly budget for professional services is about $188,000 – the McIver costs blew through that, he said.
But was it money well spent? While Howard got the result he wanted — life in prison for the 75-year-old attorney — there was some luck involved. Jurors acquitted McIver of malice murder, and many subsequently said they thought the felony murder they settled on would not result in a life sentence.
Several jurors who spoke to The AJC said a shifting seven- to eight-member majority bloc believed McIver was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, that his recklessness caused her death. That offense carries a maximum term of 10 years. A small minority pushed for malice murder, the most serious charge. They met in what they thought was the middle on felony murder.
Most did not believe the murder was premeditated, which is what most of the spending by Howard set out to prove.
“They spent all this money on something they didn’t prove,” said Panitch, who closely followed the trial. “Was it personal for Paul Howard?”
Panitch suggested that it was, citing testimony from Jeff Dickerson, a public relations adviser hired by McIver. Dickerson is friends with Howard and McIver expressed hope he could leverage a favorable deal out of that relationship. It didn’t work.
But there were political pressures, also — from Diane McIver’s mentor, Billy Corey, and groups including Black Lives Matter, skeptical that a rich white man would be convicted, let alone tried, for murder.
“Hindsight is 20/20, but this has got to be a hollow victory for Howard,” Panitch said. “So you choose to spend that much convicting an elderly man who could’ve gotten 10 years for involuntary manslaughter. Was it all about (McIver) dying in prison? It’s difficult to reconcile.”