More prosecutors in Texas are opting not to seek the death penalty, according to Randall County District Attorney James Farren, a trend that has been evident over the last decade and will likely continue. Many prosecutors weigh the uncertainty in securing a death sentence against the high litigation costs as reasons for opting for other alternative sentences even when the death penalty is available. “The facts of the case are a tremendous factor in the decision on whether to pursue a death penalty or not,” said District Attorney Randall Sims of the 47th judicial district. “You need to have a dead-bang cinch guilt-innocence case and one that you’ll prove very easily the person on trial is the person who did it.”

Farren points to the case of Levi King as the “quintessential example” of why district attorneys do not seek the death penalty in some cases. District Attorney Lynn Switzer of the 31st judicial district opted to pursue a death sentence against King, who was accused of killing three people in 2005. Even though he pleaded guilty to the crimes, the jury did not impose the death penalty. Switzer’s office spent over $750,000 to bring King to trial, about 10% of the county’s annual budget. The cost of the trial was a reason why county commissioners were forced to raise taxes and withhold employee raises last year.

D.A. Farren devoted one-third of his staff entirely to the case of Brent Ray Brewer in preparation for his re-sentencing, a period of about six months. The sentence was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2007 because the lower court did not instruct the jury to consider the defendant’s mental history. “The rest of my staff had to pull all of the weight that we would have for half a year,” Farren said.

(D. Pittman, “Death penalty pursuit: cost vs. certainty,” Amarillo Globe-News, February 1, 2010. See Costs and DPIC’s Report “Smart on Crime.”