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February 22, 2007

More on the capital craziness in Arizona

This Arizona Republic article provides more details on a county prosecutor's record number of capital charges (discussed before here).  Here are highlights from a fascinating on-going story:

In 2006, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas sought the death penalty in nearly half of the first-degree murder cases, and there is an all-time high of 135 capital cases in trial or headed toward trial. In heinous cases, Thomas says, death should be on the table for the jury to decide. "I think that it's appropriate for a panel of citizens to make that ultimate decision," he said. "And I am willing to invest the resources necessary to give them that option."

But his crusade could be straining the system.  The surge could mean a huge tab for taxpayers, few attorneys to represent people who face death sentences and more death-penalty cases than the Arizona Supreme Court is equipped to handle.  A Maricopa County judge has ordered an unprecedented March 2 hearing to probe a critical shortage of death-penalty defense attorneys.  And the Arizona Supreme Court has asked a task force to figure out how to handle the incoming tide of Maricopa County cases.

The county has more pending death-penalty cases than many other communities around the country, figures show. Harris County in Texas has 17 pending death-penalty cases, and officials there are undecided whether to seek death in 39 other murder cases. Historically, Harris County has had the highest number of death sentences and executions in the nation.  Maricopa County also dwarfs Los Angeles County, which is more than twice the size of Maricopa County, but has only 36 pending death-penalty cases.

While Thomas and some county officials say that it's tough to put a price on justice, death isn't cheap.  Since a person's life is on the line, capital cases require more lawyers, extra jail security, more courtroom time and more court staff even before the defendant reaches death row.  Just providing the legally required trial defense for one death case can cost the county up to $250,000, according to one estimate. Most murder suspects can't afford to pay attorneys, and taxpayers must foot the bill....

Since Thomas took office in 2005, he has made the death penalty a centerpiece of his term. He has pushed for legislation to speed up cases and lashed out at defense attorneys and judges for case delays.

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February 22, 2007 at 07:12 AM | Permalink

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