Costs News and Developments: 2002
Cost of the Death Penalty in Kansas
With seven months remaining in the fiscal year, the Kansas fund to help pay the cost of defending suspects in capital murder cases is nearly out of money. The state has spent nearly $2 million dollars on three capital cases, including $771,240 defending John E. Robinson, Sr., and $1,135,973 defending brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr. The Kansas Board of Indigents Defense Services has noted that the fund will be out of money in December and has requested an emergency allocation of $600,000 from the state's budget office. "We have a stack of bills we cannot pay," said Patricia Scalia, executive director of the board. (Associated Press, November 23, 2002)
Short of Death Penalty Funds
Illinois's Capital Litigation Trust Fund, created by Governor George Ryan in 1999 to help ensure competent handling of death penalty cases, ran out of money to pay defense lawyers in 2001. This fiscal shortage left counties throughout the state struggling to meet the high cost of death penalty cases. The Trust Fund money provides resources for necessities such as DNA testing, mental and physical evaluations, and investigators. The state Appellate Defender's Office noted that the unpaid bills could jeopardize cases and lead to attorneys refusing work on capital cases. (The Munster Times, August 19, 2002)
High Costs, Ohio Judge Hesitates on Death Penalty
Vinton County, Ohio, Judge Jeffrey L. Simmons ruled that prosecutors could not seek the death penalty against Gregory McKnight. Simmons' ruling stated that the county could not guarantee that McKnight would receive an adequate defense in his capital trial. "The court finds that the potential impact of financial considerations could compromise the defendant's due process rights in a capital murder case," said Simmons. "The court finds that this risk is unacceptable in this case." The cost of a death penalty trial for McKnight was expected to exceed $75,000 for legal fees, investigators, and witness travel. After being upheld by an appeals court, the judge recently decided to allow the prosecution to seek the death penalty. (New York Times, Aug. 25, 2002, and The Columbus Dispatch, August 9, 2002)
Judge Notes Expensive Bottom Line in Capital Cases
A recent death penalty case in Georgia has led Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Manis to question the value of expensive capital trials. "The death penalty has great popular appeal, but I don't think the taxpayers have looked at the bottom line," she said. "The death penalty is damn expensive." Expenses for the capital trial of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, included the following:
- The District Attorney dedicated four prosecutors and a full-time investigator to the case during the trial and in the months leading up to it. Not including time spent preparing for the case, the prosecutor's salaries exceeded $74,000 for the two months of trial and jury selection.
- The District Attorney's Office spent approximately $34,000 for equipment, graphic design for court exhibits, and expert testimony. An additional $43,000 was spent on overtime for investigators.
- $164,000 in fees and expenses were spent for one of the defense attorneys. Two additional lawyers have yet to submit bills and these additional charges are expected to put total legal fees well above $200,000.
- It cost more than $87,000 to select and sequester the jury for this case. This amount included $63,600 for hotel rooms, dinners and drinks for jurors; $6,000 for juror lunches and beverages; $2,500 for juror transportation; $765 for entertainment expenses; and $14,300 to copy the questionnaires used to pick the jury. This amount does not include the overtime paid to sheriff's deputies who guarded the jury and the court.
High Cost of New York's Death Penalty
A recent review conducted by the New York Law Journal found that the 1995 reinstatement of New York's death penalty has cost the state millions in taxpayer dollars and has consumed an immense amount of time of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The Journal's findings include:
- New York's Division of Criminal Justice Services has reimbursed more than $5 million to counties that have prosecuted capital cases.
- The state spends $1.2 million annually to fund the New York Prosecutors Training Institute that provides lawyers to assist district attorneys on capital cases.
- The Brooklyn District Attorney's office was reimbursed $707,259 to cover the personnel cost of one case, the prosecution of Darrel K. Harris. This total does not reflect non-personnel expenses, including expert fees and the work of Jonathan L. Frank, who served as the lead appellate attorney for the prosecution. Frank estimates that he donated more than 600 hours of time to the case.
- During the preparation of its 1,181-page brief for the Harris case, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office was assisted by prosecutors in 8 other counties.
- The defense team for Harris spent approximately $1.7 million to mount his defense, and the state's Capital Defender Office invested $1.2 million into producing the team's 779-page brief.
- The budget for the New York Court of Appeals has increased by more than $533,000 annually to enable each of the Court's 7 judges to have an additional clerk for capital cases.
- While a non-capital murder requires no more than two prosecutors, death penalty cases require at least three or four. The Queens District Attorney's Office estimates that seeking the death penalty translates into 300% to 500% more work than for a non-capital murder trial.
District Attorney Questioned About Death Penalty Costs
At a Philadelphia City Council budget hearing, councilman Michael Nutter questioned District Attorney Lynne A. Abraham about the costs of the death penalty. Abraham noted that in 2001 there were 309 homicides in Philadelphia, prosecutors filed initial notice that they might pursue the death penalty in 144 cases; they sought the death penalty in 67 cases; and only 2 were sent to death row. Of the remaining cases, 44 people were sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, 12 were convicted of 2nd or 3rd-degree murder, and 9 were found not guilty.
"Given what some of these numbers are, is the death sentence being overly applied for?" asked Nutter. "Obviously, there's a significant gap between the start of the process and the end. Is there overcharging going on?" Abraham responded: "We don't overcharge anyone, if we can avoid it . . . . We have the right to seek the death penalty in all appropriate cases, and that's what we do." With respect to the costs, Abraham responded: "We're not interested . . . . We have no intention of pursing that exercise." (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 2002)
High Cost of the Death Penalty in Texas
"As a growing number of local governments are discovering, there is often a new twist on an old saying: Nothing is certain except the death penalty and higher taxes. . . . Just prosecuting a capital crime can cost an average of $200,000 to $300,000, according to a conservative estimate by the Texas Office of Court Administration. Add indigent-defense lawyers, an almost-automatic appeal and a trial transcript, and death-penalty cases can easily cost many times that amount. . . . The cost, county officials say, can be an unexpected and severe budgetary shock -- much like a natural disaster, but without any federal relief to ease the strain. To pay up, counties must raise taxes, cut services, or both." (Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2002)