Prosecutors Seeking Death Sentences for Aging Defendants Despite Taxpayer Cost, Likelihood of Dying Before Execution

Two cases in which prosecutors have elected to pursue the death penalty against aging or infirm defendants who will almost certainly never be executed have raised questions about the costs and benefits of capital charges and the arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Federal prosecutors in Missouri are seeking the death penalty against 61-year-old Ulysses Jones Jr., a man with terminal renal disease, for the 2006 killing of another prisoner at a federal prison hospital. At the same time, Philadelphia's judicially-appointed interim district attorney, filling the unexpired term of a district attorney convicted of public corruption charges, is pursuing the death penalty against 64-year-old Robert Lark in the retrial of a 1979 murder. Lark won a new trial in 2014, seven years after Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a lower federal court ruling that they had unconstitutionally struck African Americans from serving as jurors in Lark's case because of their race. Jones is currently facing a capital sentencing hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri after having been convicted on October 4 of murdering 38-year-old Timothy Baker with a makeshift knife in January 2006 at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Jones has been receiving dialysis for the last 30 years, and the medical center, known as Fed Med, houses the nation’s largest dialysis center. Two other prisoners, Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, are on federal death row for another murder at Fed Med. Jones's lawyer, Thomas Carver, argues that the capital trial is senseless, both because Jones is already serving a life sentence for two unrelated robberies and murders, and because, if he is sentenced to death, he will likely die before his appeals process is complete, and almost certainly before an execution would be scheduled. "We're talking millions of dollars here," Carver said. Carver believes Jones—whom the defense says has significant intellectual and cognitive impairments—was not indicted until 2010 "because the government was hoping he would die.” In Lark's case, Interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge has decided to seek the death penalty even though Lark's appeals in his case, if he were sentenced to death, would not be completed before Lark was in his late-70s or his 80s, far beyond his expected survival on death row. Marc Bookman, a longtime Philadelphia public defender who now serves as Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, called the decision to seek death, made "by a prosecutor chosen by Philadelphia judges rather than one chosen by the community[,] ... a needless step backward" for Philadelphia. Quoting Lawrence Krasner—who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney after campaigning on a promise not to seek the death penalty and is heavily favored in the November general election—Bookman says, “We have to stop lighting money on fire.” Krasner has said that the death penalty “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962,” and his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman has publicly "wonder[ed] whether [the death penalty] is at this point even economically feasible.” In February 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions, noting that Pennsylvania’s failing death-penalty system forced “the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies” with each reversed death sentence. The only certainty in the current system, he said, “is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”

[UPDATE: On October 16, Jones was sentenced to life in prison without parole after the jury did not unanimously agree to a sentence. You can read the jury's special verdict form here. The jury convicted Lark of all charges on Friday, November 3. On November 9, the jury reported that it could not reach a unanimous sentencing verdict, resulting in Lark being sentenced to life without parole.]

(H. Keegan, "Man convicted of murder in Springfield Fed Med; death penalty proceedings begin," Springfield News-Leader, October 4, 2017; H. Keegan, “Federal death penalty trial underway for ailing man in Springfield,” Springfield News-Leader, September 30, 2017; M. Bookman, “Opinion: The last death-penalty case in Philadelphia before a new DA,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2017.) See ArbitrarinessCosts, and Federal Death Penalty.