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UPDATE: Judge orders prosecutors pay for some of man's defense work

ST. LOUIS, Mo. - UPDATE, 4:11 p.m.: Judge Steven Ohmer ordered the state pay $40,000 for Serrano's mitigation research. The public defender system will pay for the other $19,000.

Ohmer did not specify how the Attorney General's Office or Montgomery County would split the cost, if the two public agencies would split it at all.

The St. Louis judge called the situation a unique one when announcing his decision Friday afternoon. The public defender's system argued that budget shortcomings from the state legislature kept them from being able to pay a private mitigation researcher for the work. Ohmer said he was not sure if next year's state budget would prove any different for the system.

"In order to have a fair trial, this needs to happen," Ohmer said.

Greg Mermelstein testified that the office had spoken to five different mitigation specialists for the Serrano case. Only one of them, Kristina Bishop, provided a full quote of $59,000 for her work, which the public defender's system needs to approve an expenditure, Mermelstein said.

ORIGINAL: Attorneys for an undocumented immigrant accused of murder in mid-Missouri want prosecutors to pay for some defense work.

The defense team for Pablo Serrano-Vitorino appeared in court on Friday in St. Louis to discuss the issue with Judge Steven Ohmer. Public defender Don Catlett and Heather Vodnansky say the work, called "mitigation research," must be done to ensure Serrano has a fair trial.

Law enforcement believes Serrano killed Randy Nordman in March 2016 at Nordman's Montgomery County home. Authorities in Kansas were looking for Serrano at the time for a quadruple homicide days earlier.

Greg Mermelstein, head of the public defender's capital cases, testified on Friday that the work is crucial in death penalty defenses. He rejected Catlett and Vodnansky's request to hire a private researcher for $59,000 due to the lack of funds in the public defender's office. The system does have in-house mitigation researchers, but Mermelstein and director Michael Barrett said they were concerned about the safety of their researches traveling to Mexico.

Mitigation research, according to Mermelstein, involves interviewing people that know the person accused of the crime. Those interviews can yield information about past trauma, family histories of mental health or substance abuse problems or environmental factors that shaped the way the person grew up. The outcome, Mermelstein said, is presented to a jury in deciding whether or not there is a punishment more appropriate, and less, than death.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin Zoellner questioned the need for such work. 

This is an ongoing story. This page will be updated upon the completion of the hearing.


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