Birmingham News Criticizes Costly, Arbitrary Death Penalty

A recent editorial in The Birmingham News criticized the costly and unfair nature of Alabama's capital punishment system. It also called on state legislators to, at a minimum, take steps that would limit the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. The newspaper, which recently wrote a series of editorials changing its long-standing support for capital punishment and calling on the state to abandon the use of the death penalty, noted:

More varieties of murder qualify for the death penalty in Alabama than in most states, and some prosecutors charge every crime that qualifies as a capital crime.

That may sound like a good thing - a way to really crack down on violent crime and stick it to criminals. But the people who are really getting stuck are Alabama taxpayers.

That's because capital cases cost more than those that don't have a chance of ending in the death penalty, as demonstrated in a story on Sunday in The News.

In fiscal 2005, the state's bill for capital defense was on average $20,416 - a small sum, really, but almost 16 times as much as the $1,300 average indigent defense in class-A felony cases. Why? When a defendant's life is at stake, the law requires two defense lawyers, an investigator and a specialist to look for mitigating factors that could make life without parole a more appropriate sentence than death.

The additional expenses are entirely justified, but the numbers add up: Since 2000, Alabama taxpayers have paid more than $14 million to defend people charged with capital murder.

Prosecutors say they're paid the same whether they're pursuing death penalty cases or not. But they don't dispute that death penalty cases usually take more of their time. That means they invest more of their office resources in capital cases than in noncapital cases.

But do the time and money translate to more death sentences? No.

Since 1990, 1,965 capital murder indictments have been brought and resolved in Alabama. Of the total cases, only 33% ended with a capital conviction and only 11% ended with a death sentence. In Jefferson County, the percentages are even worse. Of 716 resolved capital cases, just 25% ended with conviction and only 5% a death sentence.

Translation: Taxpayers are spending tremendous sums of money on capital cases that judges and juries do not believe merit death sentences.

Granted, Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber makes a valid case for bringing capital charges if the crime fits any of the death-penalty criteria. Prosecutors who pick and choose which crimes are worthy of death have been accused of (and have been guilty of) making arbitrary and unfair distinctions.

The problem is, Alabama's death penalty law also makes arbitrary and unfair distinctions. In one of the silliest provisions, simply shooting someone in a car or from a car is a capital crime. Shooting the same person on the street is not.

Of course, The News editorial board believes the state should abolish capital punishment altogether because of our views on the sanctity of life and our concerns that Alabama's death penalty is not foolproof or fair. But even those who endorse capital punishment have an interest in making sure the system is as cost-effective and rational as possible.

The Legislature could help by trimming the list of murders that qualify for a death sentence. A broader, uniform process to decide when prosecutors can pursue a capital charge would also help.

If the state is going to have a death penalty, at the very least it should be reasonably applied. To do otherwise is not only unfair - it's expensive.

(The Birmingham News, December 7, 2005) See Editorials, Arbitrariness and Costs. Read excerpts from The Birmingham News editorials calling on Alabama to abandon the death penalty.

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COSTS: Death Penalty Has Cost New Jersey Taxpayers $253 Million

A New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that the state's death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death. The study examined the costs of death penalty cases to prosecutor offices, public defender offices, courts, and correctional facilities. The report's authors said that the cost estimate is "very conservative" because other significant costs uniquely associated with the death penalty were not available. "From a strictly financial perspective, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than this: New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one," the report concluded.  Since 1982, there have been 197 capital trials in New Jersey and 60 death sentences, of which 50 were reversed. There have been no executions, and 10 men are housed on the state's death row.  Michael Murphy, former Morris County prosecutor, remarked: "If you were to ask me how $11 million a year could best protect the people of New Jersey, I would tell you by giving the law enforcement community more resources.  I'm not interested in hypotheticals or abstractions, I want the tools for law enforcement to do their job, and $11 million can buy a lot of tools."  (See Newsday, Nov. 21, 2005; also Press Release, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nov. 21, 2005).  See DPIC's Costs. Also read the Executive Summary. Read the full report. Read the NJADP Press Release.

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NEW VOICES: "Hanging Judge" Calls for End to the Death Penalty

Retired Orange County, California Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin, who was once known as "the hanging judge," recently called for an end to the death penalty. In a column he published in the Orange County Register, McCartin revealed that a number of recent death penalty cases and rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have led him to now oppose capital punishment because it is expensive and can never be applied in a fair and balanced way. He wrote:

This may seem strange coming from a man known as the "hanging judge" of Orange County, but I think it's time to abolish the death penalty. During my 15 years on the bench (1978- 1993), I sent 9 men to death row. I believed then it was the appropriate punishment for certain murders, but recent events have altered my view.


[L]egal debates result in staggering expenses and years of irresolution. These expenses have helped convert me. In times of huge budget deficits, too much money is squandered in murder trials and retrials.

Studies show capital cases cost triple the amount of non-capital cases. When I tried Randy Kraft, one of this country's most prolific serial killers, the tab exceeded $10 million. This hemorrhage of taxpayers' money continues as his case and hundreds more crawl through the legal labyrinth, but anyone sentenced to die is justly entitled to his Supreme Court-mandated appeals. It currently costs $90,000 more every year to house a convict on death row. Clearly, waste could be drastically curbed by simply dumping capital punishment.

I recognize that basing my decision on systemic failures opens me to the argument that once the problems are corrected, capital punishment would be acceptable. Though this sounds logical, I believe fixing these deficiencies is searching for the Holy Grail. The chances of establishing faultless government, impeccable industry or immaculate religious organizations border on nonexistent.

This also applies to the quest for perfect justice. Human error, inequities, biases and personal ideologies create the problems that have caused my rejection of the death penalty. Because these frailties will not magically vanish, capital punishment cannot be implemented with any sense of balance or fairness, thus it must be abolished.

(Orange County Register, June 24, 2005) See New Voices and Costs.


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Indiana Editorial Calls For End to "Costly" Death Penalty

An editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette stated that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole and offers Indiana residents no measurable benefit for their tax dollars. The paper said that ending the death penalty and reallocating funds currently put toward capital punishment would improve programs such as victim's assistance, grassroots police programs, and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth. The Journal Gazette editorial noted:

The death penalty is not solely an issue of morality and justice. The state and counties face costs, which taxpayers finance. From the murder trial through execution, the death penalty is expensive. In fact, it costs taxpayers more to execute someone than it costs to incarcerate the same person for life without parole.

State legislators know this because the Legislative Service Agency issued fiscal-impact statements earlier this year for two death-penalty-related bills filed in the General Assembly. As the state is preparing to execute three men in the next two months, including former Allen County resident Joseph Corcoran, Hoosiers ought to ask: If it’s less expensive to lock a murderer away for life, why is the death penalty an acceptable option?


Let’s face it: The state doesn’t get much out of executions. The deterrence argument is dubious, as is the notion that it’s better for the public’s safety.

As for costs, the state and counties spend on average $741,000 over 16 years to execute a 30-year-old offender sentenced to murder, according to the Legislative Service Bureau. The figure includes jail costs, prosecutor’s and defender’s fees from murder trial through appeals, and execution costs.

It costs states and counties $622,000 to lock the same person up for life, estimated to be 47 years in prison. That includes appeals, which aren’t automatically triggered as they are in death penalty cases, as well as health care costs. It costs $506,000 to imprison someone sentenced to 65 years with a 50 % reduction for good behavior.

The money saved could be redistributed to the juvenile justice system, victim’s assistance, offender re-entry schemes, grassroots police programs and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth.

The money and resources saved by ending the death penalty would have a more profound effect to the greater good of Indiana than executing murderers.

Other than politics, why is the death penalty immune to Indiana’s budgetary woes?

(Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 22, 2005) See Costs, Life Without Parole, and Editorials.

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BOOKS: Clemency
  • A new book by Professor Austin Sarat focuses on clemency's role in the U.S. criminal justice system: "Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution." According to U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, "This thoughtful book should be read by every citizen who cares about the issue, and by every governor and president entrusted with the power to punish or pardon." In "Mercy on Trial," Sarat reviews the complexities of clemency and examines issues such as rehabilitation. (Princeton University Press, 2005).

See Books on the Death Penalty. See also Clemency.


  • "Justice Denied, Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases" - In "Justice Denied: Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases," (Northeastern University Press, 2002) Professor Cathleen Burnett examines Missouri's administration of the death penalty. While researching all 50 applications for executive clemency submitted to Missouri governors since the state's reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, Burnett discovered a series of problems directly related to flawed police investigations, instances of prosecutorial misconduct, examples of inadequate defense counsel, and the appellate court's review of capital cases. She also investigated the political ramifications of death penalty cases for trial judges in capital cases and Missouri governors. See the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Press Release.

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Death Penalty Prosecutions May be Halted if Funding is Inadequate

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that trial judges can halt prosecutions of poor defendants until the state comes up with the money to pay for an adequate defense.   Louisiana has in the past failed to adequately fund indigent defense programs. "I think it's a warning," said Phyllis Mann, appointed counsel for Benjamin Tonguis and Adrian Citizen, two death penalty defendants whose cases were reviewed by the state supreme court.  "The court is saying as plainly as they possibly can not to let people languish."  Tonguis and Citizen have been awaiting trial with limited or no funds to prepare a defense since their arrests in April and October 2002. When funding for these two cases ran out, the trial judge tried to tap into a parish-imposed tax. He ordered the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury to provide $200,000 for appointed counsel and $75,000 to be placed in escrow for other case-related expenses, but the Louisiana Supreme Court forbid such a tax because it is the state legislature's responsibility to fund indigent defense expenses. 

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In California, Taxpayers are Paying a Quarter of a Billion Dollars for each Execution

According to state and federal records obtained by The Los Angeles Times, maintaining the California death penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life. This figure does not count the millions more spent on court costs to prosecute capital cases.  The Times concluded that Californians and federal taxpayers have paid more than a quarter of a billion dollars for each of the state's 11 executions, and that it costs $90,000 more a year to house one inmate on death row, where each person has a private cell and extra guards, than in general prison population. This additional cost per prisoner adds up to $57.5 million in annual spending.

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NEW VOICES: Hearings in New York Help Shift Stance of Judiciary Committee's Leader

The Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the New York Assembly recently voiced her strong concerns about the state's death penalty.  Although she supported capital punishment earlier, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein spoke about the evolution in her thinking and her particular concerns about the risk of executing the innocent: "It was an evolutionary process. But clearly the advent of DNA evidence and the dramatic number of individuals who have been exonerated and freed from death row in states around the country was something that was building in my mind.... I'm not sure there's anything as dramatic or as important as the death penalty in terms of my vote. I have certainly looked at legislative proposals I supported or opposed and become convinced there's room for a change of position. Times and evidence have changed. That is the wonderful thing about a mind: You can change when you hear evidence and make an intelligent choice," said Weinstein.

Weinstein noted that the costs associated with capital punishment have meant that about $170 million has already been spent on a death penalty that has not resulted in one execution. These funds, she explained, could have been used to support other criminal justice or social programs.  She also found the possibility of an unequal justice system that is tainted by racism to be "very disturbing," and she became convinced that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. "I believed when I voted for it that there was a deterrent effect. I am pretty convinced now that there isn't. No one ever thinks he's getting caught, and the likelihood that you're going to get caught, convicted and receive the death penalty is so remote," she explained.

Weinstein and other New York Assembly members recently held a series of hearings on the state's death penalty law. She will now be instrumental in determining the future course of capital punishment in the state. "I think it was impossible for anyone to sit through the testimony and not come away with the conclusion that you cannot draft a death penalty law that does not have the possibility of convicting someone who is innocent. It seems clear to me that from all of what we've heard the chance of convicting an innocent individual remains a possibility, and there's no way to rectify that. People are seeing that the justice system is not infallible," she observed (New York Times, February 28, 2005) (emphasis added). See New Voices. See also, Innocence, Costs, Deterrence, and Race.

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Former Death Row Inmate Wins $6.6 Million Lawsuit Against FBI Agents

Former Illinois death row inmate Steven Manning (pictured) has been awarded $6.6 million in a civil lawsuit against two FBI agents. A jury found that the agents had framed Manning twice, including once for murder. The jury found FBI agents Robert Buchan and Gary Miller liable of concocting evidence to frame Manning, their one-time informant and a former Chicago police officer, in the murder of a trucking firm executive and in the kidnapping of two Missouri drug dealers. Manning's attorney, Jon Loevy, noted that the agents were motivated by revenge because Manning had sued them for harassment after quitting as an informant. Manning's wrongful convictions were overturned and he was eventually released from death row in February 2004. "He was in prison with the worst of the worst. Everybody was a murderer or a rapist and they all hated cops. It was hell," said Loevy of Manning's case.

At a time when Illinois had carried out 12 executions, Manning was the 13th death row exoneree in the state to be freed. His exoneration was among a series of events that prompted then-Governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions until the state took steps to address its flawed capital punishment system. The civil judgment against the federal agents may be paid by the federal government. The agents found liable in the case are unlikely to face charges. (Reuters, January 25, 2005). See Innocence and Costs.

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New Voices: Key New York Legislator Doubts Need For Death Penalty

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver voiced serious doubts about the necessity for capital punishment in light of its high cost and the alternative sentencing option of life without parole. Silver, who supported the death penalty in the past, said: "I have some doubt whether we need a death penalty.... We are spending tens of millions of dollars [that] may be better spent on educating children." He also remarked that the life-without-parole statute the state now has in place ensures that those convicted of murder can't go free. Last year, New York's Court of Appeals declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional. Any attempt to correct the unconstitutional provisions in the law would have to be considered and passed by the Assembly of which Silver is the Speaker. New York Senate Majority leader, Republican Joseph Bruno, has predicted that the Assembly will not pass a bill attempting to fix the statute.

(Democrat and Chronicle, January 27, 2005). See Life Without Parole and Costs.

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