NEW VOICES: Police Chief Says Death Penalty Hurting Public Safety

Ray Samuels, a police officer for 33 years and Chief of Police in Newark, California, for 5 years, recently expressed concern that state budget cuts will prevent important crime-fighting measures from being passed, while an expensive death penalty continues to drain the state's finances.  In an op-ed in the Contra Costa Times, Samuels wrote:

Local jurisdictions are likely to lose a significant amount of state funding this year because of the severe financial crisis. This funding helps cities and counties provide essential services in the areas of public safety, emergency services, and health and children's services. Without it, our communities will no doubt suffer dire consequences. At the same time, we continue to waste hundreds of millions on the state's dysfunctional death penalty. If we replaced the death penalty with a sentence of permanent imprisonment, the state would save more than $125 million each year. We haven't had an execution in California for three years. Are we any less safe as a result? I don't think so.

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California Lawmakers Oppose Funding $395 Million for New Death Row

Two California legislators from opposing political parties and with different points of view on the death penalty have proposed cutting funding for a new $395 million death row at San Quentin Prison.  “The Death Row expansion is a bottomless money pit,” said Republican state Senator Jeff DenhamDemocratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman added, “We should use this opportunity, with the state running out of cash, to step back and rethink this project.”  Calling the renovation project, “Cadillac Death Row,” Huffman pointed to a state auditor’s report that found the cost of the project had already increased by $40 million over earlier estimates and the 20-year operating cost would be $1.2 billion.  Huffman predicted that the new facility would run out of space by 2014, adding, “This project is hugely expensive and has a shelf life of three years.” 

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Expensive Death Penalty Prosecution of Infamous Murderer Results in Life-Without-Parole Sentence in Georgia

Brian Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without parole in Georgia on December 13 after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict of death.  Nichols had been found guilty of killing a judge, a court reporter, a police deputy, and a U.S. Customs agent during his escape from a courthouse hearing on other charges.  The jury remained deadlocked in a 9-3 vote after four days of deliberations. A unanimous vote is required for a death sentence, just as it is for a guilty verdict.  The jury did find the existence of 11 aggravating factors against Nichols.

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COSTS: Utah Supreme Court Says Death Sentences Will Be Reversed Unless Legislature Provides for Adequate Counsel

Utah’s Supreme Court recently expressed concern that the lack of qualified defense attorneys for indigent death row inmates could unravel capital sentences. In a unanimous decision in the case of death row inmate Michael Archuleta, Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins (pictured) said the court might be forced to reverse capital sentences because the low pay and the complexity of such cases have shrunk the pool of Utah attorneys who will accept them. "It falls to us, as the court of last resort in this state, to assure that no person is deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due - and competent - process of law," Wilkins wrote. "Without a sufficient defense, a sentence of death cannot be constitutionally imposed." He wrote that the justices may soon be forced to reverse a death sentence and impose life without parole on such grounds if the legislature fails to provide adequate resources.

An excerpt from the opinion follows:

In recent years we have become especially concerned with the diminishing pool of competent counsel in capital cases. There is no acceptable justification for this trend. Competent defense and appellate counsel are guaranteed by our constitution. We cannot allow a defendant’s life to be taken by the government without an adequate review of the conviction. Our judicial oath to support, protect, and defend the Constitution must, of necessity, include the requirement that we take measures within our authority and responsibility to see that the mandates of the Constitution are observed.

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Jurors Find Difficulty with Prospect of Handing Down Death Sentences

Ohio’s Franklin County (Columbus) has been experiencing a steady decline in death penalty indictments and death sentences as jurors are increasingly choosing sentences of life in prison without parole and prosecutors are seeking fewer death sentences. In a recent capital case, the judge had a difficult time finding jurors who would likely follow state law and consider a death sentence. One prospective juror, a 36-year-old truck driver, explained that while he favors the death penalty, he would have a hard time handing down a death penalty verdict because, “It would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Judge Stephen L. McIntosh excused him, along with 22 others from the 72-person jury pool, because of their attitudes about capital punishment. One prospective juror that remained in the pool, answered after many rounds of difficult questioning that she felt capable of following the state’s laws on capital punishment sentencing. Later, the judge’s bailiff found her crying in the jury room over her struggle with the issue. Judge McIntosh noted, “This isn’t easy. I think it would be difficult for me as well.”

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NEW RESOURCES: Representation and Costs in Federal Death Penalty Cases

In June 2008, the Office of Defender Services of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts published a report analyzing the cost, quality and availability of defense representation in federal death penalty cases. The report determined that federal capital trials in which the death penalty was sought were substantially more expensive than non-death penalty federal trials; however, a death sentence was handed down in only one-quarter of the cases. In addition, defense expenditures in a federal death penalty case correlated strongly with whether a death sentence was ultimately handed down.

Congress increased the number of offences for which the death penalty could be sought from one to 50 in 1994, resulting in an immediate increase in the number of death-eligible federal defendants. While death-eligible defendants numbered 26 in 1993, that number increased to 63 in 1994 and to approximately 150 every year after that. Of the cases that went to trial seeking the death penalty, only 25% resulted in a death sentence (61 out of 233). Only 14% of the cases in which the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty actually resulted in a death sentence. Cases in which the Attorney General authorizes pursuit of the death penalty are significantly more expensive than non-death cases. The average cost of a trial in a federal death case is $620,932, about 8 times that of a federal murder case in which the death penalty is not sought.

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NEW VOICES: Former San Quentin Warden Says Death Penalty "Detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe"

The former warden of San Quentin prison in California, Jeanne Woodford, regrets having taken part in executions and has called for replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Woodford notes that after each execution, "someone on the staff would ask, 'Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?' We knew the answer: No." The full article can be found below.



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NEW VOICES: Former U.S. Senator and N.J. Police Chief Testify at Maryland Commission

The final Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment hearing was held on September 23 and among those testifying were a former U.S. Senator, a New Jersey Police Chief, and a Chief of the Forensics Division of the Maryland Public Defenders Office. All spoke of how they were not philosophically opposed to the death penalty, but had serious misgivings about its application.

Maryland’s former U.S. Senator Joseph Tydings (pictured) said that Maryland has to “be willing to spend the money” if it wants to keep the death penalty. He argued that adequate counsel for defendants was needed and testified that one person is freed from death row for every eight executed since 1976. Acknowledging the cost increase it would entail, Tydings explained, “Just the cost of compensating counsel, it will at least double what’s being spent now, if not triple.” Tydings pointed to a study released by the Abell Foundation this year that found Maryland has spent nearly $200 million over the past 30 years on its death penalty system. He said he believed that it would be “fiscally impossible” to provide a fair system.

West Orange, N.J. Police Chief James Abbot had served on a New Jersey death penalty commission and found that states are incapable of carrying out the death penalty quickly, cheaply, and accurately. He said he would not want to put his family through the process of a capital case if he were killed in the line of duty. He further explained that his now 10-year-old daughter would likely be 30 by the time his killer would be executed. “I would rather she moved on and got the help she needed,” Abbot said. In addition to finding that nationally victims’ services were severely lacking and needed funding, he pointed out, “The reality is there is no closure in capital cases, just more attention to the murderer and less to the victim.” When pressed by a commission member about family victims’ wishes, Abbot testified that he knows victims’ relatives who no longer spoke to each other because of the process and that if families knew life without parole was a maximum sentence offered, they could “take some solace in it.”

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COSTS: Georgia County Finds the Costs of Death Penalty Case Adding Up

Georgia’s Hall County is encountering the high costs of seeking the death penalty as they prosecute their first capital case in nine years. The county expects the death penalty trial to cost at least four times as much as a regular murder trial. Capital trials are by far the most expensive criminal proceeding that takes place in local superior courts. Estimates put the cost for jurors and bailiffs alone at more than seven times the normal cost for a murder trial without seeking the death penalty, averaging at least $40,000 more for just jury and bailiff pay. The estimated increase does not include additional attorney and expert fees, overtime pay for courtroom deputies, increased postage costs for a questionnaire that was mailed to 500 prospective jurors, or the cost of transportation and lodging for witnesses. Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd, Chairman of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia, said of the costs of capital prosecution, “I have heard from other district attorneys in other parts of the state who had pressure with people telling them, ‘you’re going to [financially] break us.’” A University of North Carolina study estimated a cost increase of almost $200,000 for the judge, jury, and attorneys for one capital case compared to a standard murder trial.

County commissioners in Georgia’s Dawson County were faced with the prospect of raising taxes to pay for three death penalty trials for a 1991 murder. Mike Mears, a former director of the Georgia Multi-County Public Defender, remarked, “There was a discussion of actually raising the millage rate to pay for the trials.” Mears added, “I think eventually that’s something that the death penalty’s proponents and opponents could agree on--it’s just too darn expensive.” District Attorney Floyd said that the top priority for the District Attorney’s Association of Georgia will be to push legislation that would permit prosecutors to seek life without parole without needing to seek the death penalty. A similar bill stalled in the Senate this year. Floyd said the bill "would probably reduce the number of murder cases where the death penalty is sought.” Except for certain repeat offenders, the only way under Georgia law for life without parole to be an option is to seek the death penalty.
(S. Gurr, “The high cost of death,” Gainesville Times, August 10, 2008). See Costs.

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Commission Finds California Death Penalty System "Broken" and "Dysfunctional"

On June 30th, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice released a 107-page report on the state’s capital punishment system, calling it “dysfunctional” and a “broken system.” The Commission, chaired by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, came to the conclusion that California would save hundreds of millions of dollars if capital punishment was eliminated. The report states, “The families of murder victims are cruelly deluded into believing that justice will be delivered with finality during their lifetimes.” It adds, “The strain placed by these cases on our justice system, in terms of the time and attention taken away from other business that the courts must conduct for our citizens, is heavy.”

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