News

Orange County Misconduct Scandal Costs Taxpayers $2.5 Million in Failed Capital Prosecution

The failed capital prosecution of Scott Dekraai for the worst mass murder in Orange County, California history has cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million—more than double the average cost of a California death-penalty case—and the pricetag for continuing investigations into official misconduct by the county district attorney's and sheriff's offices continues to rise. Unlike most capital cases, the costs were not primarily for the trial itself, but the product of a multi-year investigation and court hearings into decades-long abuses by Orange County law enforcement involving the deliberate misuse of jailhouse informants to obtain incriminating statements from targeted prisoners, including Dekraai. “The price of misconduct is steep,” said Seattle University criminal justice professor Peter Collins, an expert on death penalty costs. Dekraai pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder in May 2014, and in normal circumstances, the penalty phase of the case would have been completed later that year. However, for the past three years, the case has been dominated by the informant scandal. In May 2015, Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from involvement in the case after finding that prosecutors had engaged in widespread misconduct, failed to disclose the improper practices, and repeatedly lied to the court about it. Additional failures by the county sheriff's office to comply with court orders to produce records related to the scandal extended the length of the court's investigation, and ultimately led to the court barring the state from pursuing the death penalty. According to an analysis by the Southern California News Group, taxpayers had already spent more than $2.5 million on the case, not including costs incurred by the Orange County District Attorney's office—which said it did not track what it spent on the case—or by the state attorney general's office after it took over the case. Known costs include approximately $1 million for defense costs over the nearly six years the case has been pending; an estimated $743,000 in costs for court time and personnel; more than $370,000 in costs for a grand jury investigation; $290,000 in pretrial incarceration costs; and more than $100,000 for the county to provide legal representation to the sheriff's department during the investigation. In addition to prosecutor salaries and other prosecution costs, the $2.5 million estimate does not include the costs of the Orange County District Attorney's appeal of the order removing it from the case; any state money spent on the ongoing investigation into the county's informant abuses; nor the costs of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the informant scandal. Dekraai is scheduled to be sentenced on September 22 to eight terms of life without parole. 


Read More 334 reads
Political Analysis: Is Conservative Support the Future of Death-Penalty Abolition?

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, released online in July, Ben Jones argues that, despite the popular conception of death-penalty abolition as a politically progressive cause, its future success may well depend upon building support among Republicans and political conservatives. In The Republican Party, Conservatives, and the Future of Capital Punishment, Jones—the Assistant Director of Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University—traces the ideological roots of the recent emergence of Republican lawmakers as champions of death penalty repeal to long-held conservative views. He writes, “there is a cogent and compelling conservative argument against the death penalty: it is incompatible with limited government, fiscal responsibility, and promoting a culture of life.” Jones says that for much of the 20th century, the death penalty was not a partisan issue, as Republican governors signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Kansas in 1907 and Minnesota in 1911. Later, Republican governors commuted the sentences of all prisoners on death row in Arkansas in 1970 and in Illinois in 2003. Jones believes that Republican lawmakers’ increased interest in criminal justice reform “has created an opportunity to reframe the death penalty in a way that resonates with traditional conservative concerns.” Though Jones is uncertain whether the nascent Republican legislative opposition to capital punishment is “part of a longer-term trend,” he says, if it is, “Republican and conservative opposition will provide important opportunities—which otherwise would be absent—to advance efforts to end the death penalty in the U.S.” One opportunity may be in Utah, where conservative Republican state senator Stephen Urquhart led an effort that came close to achieving legislative repeal of the death penalty in 2016. A July 19 Salt Lake Tribune editorial argued that “[e]nding the death penalty would save money and save souls.” On the same day, Rethlyn Looker, the Utah state chair for Young Americans For Liberty, wrote in a Tribune op-ed, that "as fiscal conservatives," the cost argument to abolish capital punishment "should resonate with us" because, "in Utah, it costs at least $1.6 million more to sentence a person to death than to sentence them to life in prison without the possibility of parole." But, Looker writes, the "most compelling reason" to oppose the death penalty is still "the fact that we simply can't trust the government to get something this serious right." She says, "[f]or all of the reasons we distrust the government to do the right thing in so many other areas, we should distrust the government to end a person's life."


Read More 1,287 reads
Lawyers Say Utah Is Underfunding Death-Penalty Appellate Defense

Utah is not providing sufficient funding to competently represent death-row prisoners during their appeals, according to a motion filed on behalf of Douglas Lovell, the man most recently sentenced to death in the state. Because of that, Lovell's lawyer Samuel Newton says, Lovell's death sentence should be vacated and he should be resentenced to life in prison. Newton bases his claim on a 2008 Utah Supreme Court opinion, Archuleta v. Galetka, in which the court warned that "low levels of public funding for capital cases" and "significantly diminishing numbers of qualified counsel able and willing to represent capital defendants" might force the court to overturn death sentences if it "impedes prompt, constitutionally sound resolution" of a capital case. Newton argues that a billing cap imposed by Weber County officials and threats and meddling by county officials are compromising his ability to zealously represent Lovell. Lovell has been granted an evidentiary hearing on his post-conviction claims — including whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interfered with the trial by limiting the testimony available from bishops who had worked with Lovell at the prison — and Newton estimates that the hundreds of hours required to investigate and prepare for the hearing would cost about $37,000. However, Weber County officials sent Newton an email accusing him of overbilling the county and meeting with his client too frequently, and threatening that, as a result, they may have to find other attorneys for future appeals. The county has capped his payment for the hearing at $15,000. "That's the bind," Newton said. "Do I represent my client zealously like I'm constitutionally required to do? Or do I tread lightly so I don't lose my livelihood?" Newton said that the financial strain of handling another death-penalty case has caused stress-related heart problems that led him to request to be removed from that case. Newton's motion is not the first time attorneys have expressed concerns about Utah's capital defense funding. In 2007, the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in the case of Ralph Menzies. Affidavits submitted by well-known defense lawyers in connection with that brief reported that the final payments they received for handling death-penalty appeals had amounted to compensation at levels of $17 and $19 per hour — about one-tenth their normal billing rates. Defense attorney Richard Mauro said the pay rates make it almost impossible for private attorneys to take on capital appeals: "If you are doing the work the way it's supposed to be done — and trying to keep the lights on and run the copy machine — it's really not a feasible thing to do."


Read More 884 reads
Former Governor Bill Richardson: Death Penalty Is Bad for Business, Out of Step With World's Views

In a Washington Post op-ed, former New Mexico Governor and United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson (pictured)—who in 2009 signed a bill to abolish his state's death penalty—urged that capital punishment be abolished in the United States, saying "[t]he practice is wrong and I hope it isn’t long for this world." Richardson said he supported the death penalty for decades before "empirical evidence and common sense" convinced him that the practice should end. That evidence, he writes, included that that "the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent, is unfairly applied and has become increasingly costly for states." Richardson now serves as a commissioner on the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, advocating the worldwide abolition of capital punishment. He explains how the use of the death penalty, especially lethal injection, hurts state business interests by putting them at odds with the views of pharmaceutical companies. Using Arkansas' April 2017 flurry of executions as an example, he writes, "In their effort to push through these executions, state officials needlessly hastened the application of an unjust policy while senselessly placing Arkansas at odds with the private sector." McKesson, a pharmaceutical distributor, sued the state of Arkansas for using "false pretense, trickery, and bad faith" to obtain execution drugs. He also points to a recent vote by the Delaware House of Representatives to reinstate the death penalty, saying, "As a state that has worked successfully for decades to build an international brand as America’s leading incorporation venue, a major source of its revenue, Delaware could lose if the globally disfavored death penalty once again becomes law." Richardson also ties his international experience to the issue, writing, "States that continue to employ the death penalty will remain isolated from the growing international consensus." "To effectively represent the interests of citizens, and protect our nation’s role as a global leader," he concludes, "a new generation of policymakers and politicians must put the death penalty to rest once and for all."


Read More 971 reads
Review Commission Report: Oklahoma Death Penalty Cases Cost Triple That Of Non-Capital Cases

An independent study of the costs of seeking and imposing the death penalty in Oklahoma, prepared for the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, has concluded that seeking the death penalty in Oklahoma "incurs significantly more time, effort, and costs on average, as compared to when the death penalty is not sought in first degree murder cases." The report—prepared by Seattle University criminal justice professors Peter A. Collins and Matthew J. Hickman and law professor Robert C. Boruchowitz, with research support by Alexa D. O’Brien—found that, on average, Oklahoma capital cases cost 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. Reviewing 15 state studies of death penalty costs conducted between 2000 and 2016, the study found that, across the country, seeking the death penalty imposes an average of approximately $700,000 more in case-level costs than not seeking death. The researchers wrote that "all of these studies have found ... that seeking and imposing the death penalty is more expensive than not seeking it." The Oklahoma study reviewed 184 first-degree murder cases from Oklahoma and Tulsa counties in the years 2004-2010 and analyzed costs incurred at the pre-trial, trial, sentencing, and post-sentencing (appeals and incarceration) stages. Capital prosecutions, it found, cost the counties more than 1½ times the amount of incarceration costs than did non-capital trials because capital defendants spent an average of 324 more days in jail prior to and during death penalty trials. Prosecutors spent triple in pre-trial and trial costs on death penalty proceedings, while defense teams spent nearly 10 times more. Oklahoma capital appeal proceedings cost between five and six times more than non-capital appeals of first-degree murder convictions. Despite Oklahoma's ranking in the bottom 19 states in justice expenditures and what Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater called “horrific issues with underfunding" of Oklahoma's indigent defense system, the study "conservatively estimated" that an Oklahoma capital case cost $110,000 more on average than a non-capital case. The researchers said their results were "consistent with all previous research on death penalty costs, which have found that in comparing similar cases, seeking and imposing the death penalty is more expensive than not seeking it." They concluded, "It is a simple fact that seeking the death penalty is more expensive. There is not one credible study, to our knowledge, that presents evidence to the contrary."

Read More 1,449 reads
Louisiana Legislature Considers Bipartisan Measure to Abolish Death Penalty

Three Louisiana legislators, all of them former law enforcement officials, have proposed legislation to abolish the state's death penalty. Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge, pictured), a former New Orleans prosecutor who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the primary author of Senate Bill 142, which would eliminate the death penalty for offenses committed on or after August 1, 2017. The bill's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Bill 101, is sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry (D-Lafayette), a former state police superintendent, with support from Rep. Steven Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a former sheriff. Both bills would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In urging repeal, Sen. Claitor said he was "well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet," he said, "the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.” Landry, who led the Louisiana State Police portion of the investigation that led to the murder conviction and death sentencing of Derrick Todd Lee, also expressed concerns about the cost and public safety value of the death penalty. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time." Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, but the Department of Corrections estimates that housing death row inmates costs $1.52 million per year, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million last fiscal year. That cost has also contributed to Louisiana's chronic underfunding of public defender services for non-capital cases across the state. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is also a factor in the heavily Catholic state. Sen. Claitor said his Catholic faith brought about a change of heart on the issue, and Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), said a statement of support for repeal, expected to be released by the Louisiana Catholic bishops, "would weigh heavy on me and on the vast majority of my constituents."


Read More 2,287 reads
Maricopa County, Arizona DA Seeks Death Penalty So Often, The County Has Run Out of Capital Defense Lawyers

Maricopa County, Arizona County Attorney Bill Montgomery has sought the death penalty so frequently that the county has run up millions of dollars in defense costs and run out of defense lawyers qualified to handle new capitally-charged cases. The Arizona Republic reports that, with 65 active death-penalty cases and more new capital cases charged than the 35 that have been resolved since July 1, 2014, the county ran out of the specialized lawyers needed to defend the cases in January of this year. Yet despite the county's high rate of seeking the death penalty, the number of death sentences imposed in the county is falling. With 81 people on death row as of January 1, 2013, Maricopa County ranked fourth among all U.S. counties in the number of death-row prisoners. According to a 2016 Fair Punishment Project report, Maricopa County imposed 28 death sentences between 2010 and 2015, making it one of only 16 counties to have imposed as many as 10 death sentences over that period. However, only six of the cases resolved since July 1, 2014, have resulted in death sentences. In addition to burdening the county's defense services, the County Attorney's broad pursuit of the death penalty has placed a significant financial strain on the county. An audit commissioned by the Office of Public Defense Services, one of the agencies that provides representation for capital defendants, found that capital murder cases cost eight to 40 times more than first-degree murder cases in which the death penalty is not sought. The audit found that non-capital murder trials cost about $27,000 to defend, whereas capital cases—which require two defense attorneys, an investigator, and a mitigation specialist—cost from $213,000 to $1 million, depending on the outcome. Capital cases ending in a plea to a lesser offense or sentence cost about $213,000, the audit said; more than the cost of a non-capital case taken to trial. Death penalty trials resulting in life sentences cost $580,000, and those that ended with a death sentence cost $1 million, not including federal appeals. John Canby, an attorney for the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office, summarized the situation: “For a variety of reasons it appears that juries in Maricopa County are less willing to return death verdicts in trials for first-degree murder than they once were. Nevertheless, it seems that the County Attorney’s Office is still willing to seek death sentences in cases with only a remote possibility of a death verdict. That practice costs the taxpayers of Maricopa County a lot of money because the court is required to appoint capital-qualified attorneys to those cases, even if the possibility of a death sentence is in fact very remote." 


Read More 2,489 reads
POLL: Nearly Two-Thirds in Utah Prefer Life-Sentencing Alternatives to the Death Penalty

According to a new poll, nearly two-thirds of Utah residents say they prefer some form of life sentence, rather than the death penalty, as the punishment for murder, and a majority support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. The statewide poll of 784 Utah voters conducted by Public Policy Polling on January 13-15, 2017 and released on February 9 found that Utah residents preferred life-sentence alternatives over capital punishment by a margin of 35 percentage points. 47% said they preferred life in prison without parole, plus a requirement that the convicted person work in prison to pay restitution to the victims; 9% selected life in prison without parole; 8% chose life in prison with a possibility of parole after 40 years; and 29% preferred the death penalty. The preference for alternatives held true across political party, religion, age, gender, and race. The poll also found that a majority (53%) of Utahns said they would strongly or somewhat support a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole, a measure estimated to save the state more than $1.6 million per case. 41% of respondents opposed the bill. “The death penalty is losing favor in our state because it wastes tax dollars, is ineffective in stopping violent crime, and risks possibly killing an innocent person, and none of those things align with our conservative principles,” said said Kevin Greene, Organizing Director of Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of the Utah Justice Coalition. In 2016, a death penalty repeal bill sponsored by Republican Senator Steve Urquhart passed the Utah Senate and a House legislative committee, but was not considered by the full House before the legislative session ended.


Read More 4,485 reads