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For Sanpete County, SB97 - passed into law this year - is a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel.

That is because SB97 exempts Sanpete and Iron counties, the two rural counties that have state penal institutions, from paying the lion's share of costs of defending state prisoners who have been charged with criminal offenses while at the institutions.The legislation was triggered by the July 6, 1994, murder of Victor Lonnie Blackman, an inmate of the Gunnison regional prison. Three inmates were charged with criminal homicide-aggravated murder, a capital offense.

At their 6th District Court hearing, Troy Michael Kell, Eric Thomas Daniels and John Frederick Connistaci entered not guilty pleas and asked for jury trials.

The realization that Sanpete County could be faced with immense costs in defending the three prisoners fueled rumors that the costs might reach half a million or a million dollars and force the county into bankruptcy or require a large property-tax increase.

The effect on county officials and the general public was like a nearby lightning bolt - it was frightening.

A campaign to get relief on the state level was initiated. One delegation approached Gov. Mike Leav-itt and legislative leaders with pleas for help.

The result: SB97.

It exempts Sanpete and Iron counties, in effect, from covering the major share of defending state prisoners in criminal cases. They'll still have to impose a small property tax levy if they participate in the state program set up by SB97.

According to Sanpete County attorney Ross P. Blackham, Sanpete County will contribute around $40,000, plus some incidental expenses, to the defense of Kell, Daniels and Connistaci. But that is a lot less than the $250,000 in state money SB97 commits to the defense.

Blackham, however, doubts the $250,000 in state money and the $40,000 in county money will cover the total costs. "We'll have to see when the bills come in," he said.

Blackham will head a prosecution team that will also include Scott Reed and Keith Torgerson of the state attorney general's office. The court has appointed defense attorneys for the three defendants.

Milt Harmon, Nephi, and another lawyer not yet named, will defend Daniels; Stephen Mc-Cavg-hey, Salt Lake City, and Douglas Neeley, Ephraim, will defend Kell; and Kenneth R. Brown and James Bradshaw, both Salt Lake City, will defend Connistaci.

June was originally set for the trial in Manti, but a defense attorney has asked for more time to prepare.

That could mean late summer, Blackham said. He is not happy about the postponement, but he is happy that Sanpete County won't have to bear the large share of the costs.

And so is County Commission Chairman Bob Bessey. "Expecting our taxpayers to cover the cost of defending state prisoners seemed very unfair," he said. "We appreciate the support we got for getting it all changed."