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ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.


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Pennsylvania Death Penalty Costs Estimated at $350 Million

In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.


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COSTS: Capital Cases in Nevada Much More Expensive Than Non-Death Penalty

A recent study commissioned by the Nevada legislature found that the average death penalty case costs a half million dollars more than a case in which the death penalty is not sought. The Legislative Auditor estimated the cost of a murder trial in which the death penalty was sought cost $1.03 to $1.3 million, whereas cases without the death penalty cost $775,000. The auditor summarized the study's findings, saying, "Adjudicating death penalty cases takes more time and resources compared to murder cases where the death penalty sentence is not pursued as an option. These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error." The study noted that the extra costs of a death penalty trial were still incurred even in cases where a jury chose a lesser sentence, with those cases costing $1.2 million. See Chart below.


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NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."


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COSTS: Washington State Is Spending Tens of Millions on Death Penalty

Three capital cases in one county have already cost Washington almost $10 million, and have barely begun. For the trial of Christopher Monfort, King County has already spent over $4 million, and it is still in the jury selection phase. Two other capital cases in the county have cost a combined $4.9 million, and the trials have not started. The capital case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, which is believed to be the most expensive case in Washington's history, cost about $12 million and resulted in a sentence of life without parole. In February, Governor Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington, highlighting both the costs and the arbitrariness of the death penalty, noting, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga said, "It is a complete waste of resources and time. We've had five executions in 40 years. Seventy-five to 80 percent of these cases are reversed."


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NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”


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NEW VOICES: Once a Supporter, Colorado Governor Explains Opposition to Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stated his opposition to the death penalty, citing the views of murder victims' family members and the high cost of implementing capital punishment. Hickenlooper said he had supported the death penalty until he learned more about it. “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty," he said, "But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff." In 2013, he granted an indefinite reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, saying, “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” Because of the general basis for Hickenlooper's grant of a stay, it would appear to put a hold on all executions while he is governor.


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NEW VOICES: Former Oklahoma Warden Says Death Penalty Fails on Many Fronts

Randy Workman (pictured) is a former warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he oversaw 32 executions. In a recent interview, he was critical of many aspects of capital punishment. He said the death penalty failed the victims' families and wasted money: "We spend millions of dollars on these cases and going through the process and the end result is the family, do they feel vindicated? I’d say 90% of the time the people I’ve seen don’t." He shared the advice he gave to a murder victim's mother (a relative) who asked for his thoughts on whether to seek the death penalty: "I said here’s the deal, if you get the death penalty and you[’re] successful, you're going to spend the next eight to 12 years back and forth in court and you’re going to relive your son’s death, because he has all these appeals....I’ve seen some mothers that had some serious broken hearts that said this doesn’t end it for me.This isn’t justice to me. This doesn’t do it.” He also said the threat of execution does not deter people from committing murder: “I can tell you the people that I’ve executed, when they committed crimes, they didn’t, wasn’t thinking about the death penalty and a lot of them were high, or a lot of them in the generation of people we’re dealing with today don’t have a lot of forethought about the end result.” Workman said he still supported the death penalty, but would not want to "push the button" on the chance the defendant might be innocent: "I would never take that chance with my life,” he said.


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NEW VOICES: Another Oregon Chief Justice Questions the Death Penalty

Three former Chief Justices of the Oregon Supreme Court have recently called for an end to the death penalty in their state. Retired Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr. (l.), was the most recent Justice to call for a change: "In my opinion, the exceptional cost of death penalty cases and the seemingly haphazard selection of which cases deserve the death penalty outweigh any perceived public benefit of this sanction," Carson said. "The fairly recent addition of a 'true life' (no parole) penalty should reasonably substitute for any deterrence value that some may claim that the death penalty provides. It is time for a change." In 2013, former Chief Justice Paul J. DeMuniz, said, "The death penalty is getting a 'pass' from legislative scrutiny, when looking for ways to trim Oregon’s budget to fund starving schools and public safety. We currently have fewer state police today than we did in 1960." Retired Chief Justice Edwin J. Petersen also spoke out against the death penalty in 2013, saying "Under our system, fairness is difficult to achieve. Mistakes are made. The  system sets up the possibility of a fatal mistake--killing an innocent person."


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COSTS: Kansas Study Examines High Cost of Death Penalty Cases

Defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not sought, according to a new study by the Kansas Judicial Council. Examining 34 potential death-penalty cases from 2004-2011, the study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. Costs incurred by the trial court showed a similar disparity: $72,530 for cases with the death penalty; $21,554 for those without. Even in cases that ended in a guilty plea and did not go to trial, cases where the death penalty was sought incurred about twice the costs for both defense ($130,595 v. $64,711) and courts ($16,263 v. $7,384), compared to cases where death was not sought. The time spent on death cases was also much higher. Jury trials averaged 40.13 days in cases where the death penalty was being sought, but only 16.79 days when it was not an option. Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court assigned to write opinions estimated they spent 20 times more hours on death penalty appeals than on non-death appeals. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690). 


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