Defense replies to objection to public funds decision in West Chester quadruple homicide case

More than two years after four people were shot to death in a West Chester Twp. apartment, legal wrangling continues in the case of the man accused of the slayings.

Gurpreet Singh’s defense team responded Wednesday to the county prosecutor’s objection of a judge’s decision to allow public money to hire defense experts in the death penalty case.

“The State of Ohio provided no authority for its outlandish proposition that the state can dictate how privately retained counsel structure their representation fees,” attorney Neil Schuett wrote in the response signed by lead attorneys Charles H. and Charles M. Rittgers.

They also said removing the death penalty specification from the case would save taxpayers lots of money

The response came to Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser’s objection to a ruling by common pleas Judge Greg Howard’s decision on the use of public funds.

Singh, 39, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for the April 28, 2019 homicides. With specifications of using a firearm and killing two or more persons, Singh faces the death penalty if convicted.

Singh is accused of killing his wife, Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt by marriage, Amarjit Kaur, 58, at their residence on Wyndtree Drive. All died of gunshot wounds.

Schuett said Singh, a truck driver and father of two, has been in the Butler County Jail since he was arrested in August 2019 and unable to work. He said Singh has $270 in his bank account and no other assets.

Singh had received money from relatives in India to hire the defense team, but “that well is now dry,” according to Schuett. The defense team asked for $50,000 to $60,000 from the state to hire expert witnesses throughout the trial, which is set to begin in 2022.

Assistant Butler County Prosecutor Josh Muennich said Singh has paid his defense team $250,000. He compared the firm to a Ferrari and said it now wants the state to pay for gas.

The defense said the request for public funds does not pertain to attorney fees, but for investigation and experts only.

Prosecutors said that prior to his arrest, Singh was employed as an owner-operator of a semi-tractor trailer, which is typically valued at $75,000 and $175,000, and that he had at least one bank account with a balance of $75,052.31 and owned real estate in Indianapolis valued at $330,180.

In his decision, Howard said evidence includes a credit check on Singh stating he does not have any assets personally or through any of the corporations he once held. And Singh himself did not retain his defense counsel, because a family member did.

While some of the family money has paid for experts, additional money is needed for experts to properly prepare for trial, Howard said.Howard said he will consider specific requests filed by the defense for experts, but will not give the defense team a blank check.

Gmoser said the decision sets a precedent for allowing defense counsel to charge attorney fees that are equal to the defendant’s total assets then request public funds to pay for a mitigation expert, private investigators and forensic experts.

“It begs the question of whether or not any attorney hired privately should be questioned by the court in advance of doing any work if the representation is capable without taxpayer assistance,” Gmoser said in the objection. “The choice should be obvious that if a privately hired attorney takes everything a client has for the agreement of representation, the attorney should complete it or get off the case and return the money paid to the client.”

Gmoser said that based on a letter sent by defense counsel to the West Chester Police Department in 2019 prior to Singh’s indictment, they knew the nature of the case and “had every opportunity to reach a formal written agreement with the defendant.”

But despite that knowledge, Gmoser said, the defense has “apparently negotiated a fee agreement by email with a third party ... and has failed to formalize a written agreement with the defendant ...”

Gmoser said the defense has also failed to provide the court with any proof of where Singh’s assets have gone.

In the response, the defense refers to some of Gmoser’s allegations as “ludicrous.”

“The prosecutor’s false assumption that counsel purposefully ‘planned to charge a fee equal to this defendant’s assets and force upon the tax payers the bill for experts all along’ is as offensive as it is absurd,” Schuett wrote. “It is noteworthy that the State of Ohio conveniently omitted in its objection that Mr. Singh provided this court with proof that $50,000 has already been spent on expert witnesses above and beyond the representation fee.

“These fees were almost entirely spent on matters that are required in death penalty cases for expert witnesses and related investigations. Thus, the prosecutor’s ludicrous allegation that defense counsel planned to seek public funds for experts back in August of 2019 is not only devoid of any facts it’s objectively false.”

The defense pointed out the high estimated cost of death penalty cases, which the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center estimated in 2020 averaged at least $1 million more than cases seeking alternative punishments like life without parole.

The prosecution’s “outrage” for the court in finding Singh indigent is “wholly misplaced,” according to the defense. It added that Singh has actually saved taxpayers money by retaining counsel.

“The state was fully aware when it chose to indict Mr. Singh for aggravated murder and to pursue the death penalty that they were expecting the taxpayers of Ohio to pay, on average, over $1 million for this case if Mr. Singh did not privately retain counsel or did not have a third-party willing to pay $50,000 for experts and investigation costs. Thus, the taxpayers have already been saved from paying a substantial amount of money in this case,” Schuett wrote.

The defense pointed to the additional cost of interpreters and a difficult mitigation investigation in India that is unique to the case. They also said removal of the death penalty would save taxpayers money.

“It was the Butler County Prosecutor’s Office that increased the burden of this case on the taxpayers by at least $500,000 when it decided to pursue the death penalty. If the Prosecutor’s Office is sincere in its concern about the cost of this case on Butler County and State of Ohio taxpayers, then they should amend the indictment to remove the death penalty,” Schuett said in the motion.

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