COSTS: One Death Penalty Case Could Drain County's Budget in Washington

As Yakima County, Washington, faces the possibility of its first death penalty trial since 1989, the danger that the high cost of a capital case could drain the county’s budget is a deep concern. Harold Delia, Yakima County court administrative consultant questioned the wisdom of seeking the death penalty against a defendant recently charged with murder, “You really have to wonder whether this really makes sense when you look at the cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “In Yakima County, we have no reserves left. If we overspend on a death penalty case, money has to come from somewhere.” Taxpayers may spend up to $1 million on the trial proceedings alone. In Yakima County, the 2005 slayings of a 21-year-old man and his 3-year-old daughter cost more than $2 million in defense costs alone, much of it incurred before the trial began, even though the death penalty ended up being no more than a threat in the case. A study commissioned by the Washington State Bar Association in 2006 estimated that a death penalty case can cost an additional $800,000 when considering additional costs to the prosecution and defense at the trial and the cost of appeals.

Since Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1981, there have been 79 death penalty cases, according to the bar association study. A death sentence was handed down in 30 cases, resulting in five executions. Far more condemned inmates — 19 — had their cases overturned on appeal.

(C. Bristol, “Death Penalty: The cost is high,” Yakima Herald-Republic, March 19, 2011). See Arbitrariness and Costs.