COSTS: Capital Trials Put Strain on Struggling County's Budget; Prosecutors Laid Off

In Washington, King County has spent $656,564 to prosecute three capital defendants in two cases and over $4.3 million to defend the accused. The trials have yet to begin, but money has been needed for expert witnesses, investigators, and forensic analysis. Prosecution costs do not include work done by police officers and crime-lab analysts. The county has struggled with constraints on its criminal justice budget and has eliminated the jobs of 36 prosecutors since 2008. A third case prosecuted last year has thus far cost the county another $2.4 million. Other counties with similar budgetary concerns have chosen not to seek the death penalty. Defense attorney Jeff Ellis said that the high cost of the death penalty may be partly responsible for the drop in death penalty cases in other areas. He said, “There is a downturn in the number of death-penalty sentences being sought and imposed because of the costs associated with them. What’s happening now [in King County] is a reverse of what’s happening nationwide.” According to a 2006 study released by the Washington State Bar Association, a death penalty trial costs approximately $470,000 more than a murder case in which the death penalty is not sought, and an additional $70,000 in court costs. The study also found that more than $200,000 is spent on average on appeals.

The head of King County’s Office of Public Defense, V. David Hocraffer, agreed that defending people who face execution is expensive, but the extra costs of the death penalty could be eliminated by seeking life sentences instead: “Financially, if the goal is public safety you could save money by not having the death penalty on the table. There are places where the counties just don’t have the funds,” said Hocraffer.

(J. Sullivan, “King County’s death-penalty dilemma: Soaring cost worth it?” Seattle Times, August 14, 2011). See Costs and Representation.