According to a study by the Independent Weekly, North Carolina conservatively spent at least $36 million dollars by seeking the death penalty instead of life in prison without parole over the past 7 years, just on defense costs. The state’s Indigent Defense Services organization said the average cost of a death penalty defense was $63,700, and the state sought the death penalty 733 times between 2001 and 2008. The average cost of the 1,785 potentially capital cases where the state instead sought life in prison was $14,500. Based on these figures, the state would have saved $49,200 on each of the 733 death penalty cases, totaling $36.1 million, if a life sentence was sought instead. This estimate is very conservative since it does not include the prosecution, death row, appeals, and other additional costs found in capital cases.

The Indigent Defense Services costs were higher for capital cases in part because the state requires that capital defendants have two attorneys, there is a greater need for expert testimony, and there is a separate sentencing phase. “The attorneys have to treat their cases as serious capital cases, unless they’re told it’s not,” says Thomas Maher, executive director of N.C Indigent Defense Services. “The result is, a significant amount of money is spent on capital cases, although at the end of the day, district attorneys as a group only find a dozen in a year they even think are worthy of putting in front of a jury—and of that group, the majority don’t get death.” Of the 733 defendants who faced the death penalty, less than 3% (20) received death sentences. The paper estimated that the cost of the lethal injection supplies used in an execution was $168.

(M. Saldana, “The high cost of the death penalty,” The Independent Weekly, June 24, 2009). See Costs, Studies, and DPIC’s Podcast on Costs.