For the first time in 25 years, Southern Oregon Public Defenders had to turn down a murder case Wednesday because all of its qualified attorneys were busy with similar cases.

For the first time in 25 years, Southern Oregon Public Defenders had to turn down a murder case Wednesday because all of its qualified attorneys were busy with similar cases.

In a Jackson County Circuit Court room packed to capacity, Bert Putney, administrator of the lawyers' group, asked for the arraignment of Benjamin James George to be delayed for three weeks.

The 29-year-old is accused of felony murder, murder by abuse and first-degree assault in the death of his girlfriend's toddler daughter June 15.

Putney said his group already had its state-contracted quota of murder cases and had no attorneys available to take on another.

Los Abogados, another consortium of local attorneys that has a contract with the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, will take on the case, said Doug Engle, a Medford attorney in the consortium.

Putney said he could not remember a time when his organization, which provides publicly funded defense in Jackson and Josephine counties, didn't have an attorney able to take on a murder case.

"It's never happened before," he said. "It's a blip. It could be another 25 years before it happens again."

Ingrid Swenson, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, said the state doesn't employ its own lawyers, but has contractors in every county to provide public defenders at an agreed-upon average cost.

Southern Oregon Public Defenders is contracted to handle four murder cases — two in Jackson County and two in Josephine County — in 2010 for $20,000 for each case, she and Putney said.

However, the group already has five Jackson County cases and two in Josephine County, Putney said, explaining that "murder credit" cases also include rape and sodomy of victims under age 12, which are considered as serious as a murder case.

Officials at the state and local level all said that estimating the number of murder cases is especially difficult because the number can vary widely from year to year, rather than following clear trends the way other more minor offenses might. A murder trial is also much more costly and difficult to prepare for.

Putney said he wouldn't assign two murder cases to any of his attorneys, so that was why he asked for the case to be sent to Los Abogados.

"It's a huge commitment of time and energy for any attorney," Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston said of preparing for a murder trial. "I try to assign new murder cases to an attorney who doesn't have any other murder cases."

In addition to George's murder arraignment, which was postponed, a bail hearing was set in the murder case pending against Daniel Tony Lawrence, a 19-year-old who is accused of stabbing Joseph Mathew Ziegler, 23, to death in a fight May 21.

Lawrence has been held without bail since last month and a request by his attorney, Kelly Ravassipour, to set bail at $250,000 was met with an outcry from those assembled to watch the proceedings. Judge Ray White silenced them and advised the attorneys to ask for another bail hearing.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.