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February 5, 2008

Is even Texas justice going softer on capital punishment?

Because Texas is the only state that seems really invested in and committed to capital punishment, I found the headline of this local article from Austin really interesting: "Four Travis candidates lay out their views on death penalty: Three of Earle's assistants say they would seek ultimate punishment infrequently; former assistant says he would never seek death."

Notably, the one Texas candidate saying he would not pursue death cases stressed the "cost of prosecuting such cases."  I have long thought an emphasis on economic realities is the strongest practical argument against the death penalty.  And these economic realities are highlighted by this intriguing article from New Hampshire, which starts this way:

Nearly $978,000 has been allocated to date for the capital murder case against Michael K. "Stix" Addison and requests for more money likely will be made before Addison stands trial in September for allegedly killing a Manchester police officer, attorneys involved in the case said.

Notably, as detailed in this New Hampshire budget report, the state's Highway Safety Agency gets only about $500,000 annually.  So the citizens of New Hampshire are likely to be spending in 2008 more than twice as much to seek a death verdict against a murderer than they are going to spend on keeping their state highways safe.  I wonder how many of the frugal citizens of New Hampshire realize their state tax dollars are being allocated this way.  I also wonder how many lives might be saved on the roads if the NH Highway Safety agency had an addition million dollars for road safety.

February 5, 2008 at 07:54 AM | Permalink

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Travis county is Austin. Austin is much, much more liberal than the rest of the state. It's probably one of the most liberal cities in the country -- certainly the most liberal in the south. About 65 or 70% of the city votes for the democratic candidate for president every four years.

Posted by: Confused | Feb 5, 2008 8:32:02 AM

What Confused said. Austin is the San Francisco of the South. Earle, a Democrat, also did not seek death that much. There's only 6 people on Texas's death row out of Travis County right now. For comparison, Smith County in Northeast Texas, which boasts Tyler, i.e., Hell on Earth, as its largest city, has 7 guys on death row.

Posted by: DK | Feb 5, 2008 11:09:48 PM

I think the financial analysis has too many unaccounted variables to be persuasive. As an example, it is plainly true that one receiving a harsh sentence is more likely to appeal in hope of getting something more lenient than someone who received a lax penalty from the outset. This strategic decision to seek all possible avenues of appeal applies to sentences that fall on the far end of the spectrum of possibility. I don't think anyone is going to decline to appeal a death sentence to be carried out by lethal injection merely because it's better than the impossible outcome of being burned at the stake. Similarly, if death sentences were eliminated, LWOP would fall on the far end of the spectrum indicating the strategic advantage of seeking a reduction, and I don't think anyone would then decline to profusely appeal LWOP verdicts merely because death is not a possible outcome. Legal costs make up by far the largest portion of death penalty case expenditures, and as we have seen, it is possible that the state's incurred expenses on appeals would just be shifted around and not eliminated by precluding the death penalty.

Posted by: | Feb 7, 2008 4:52:22 AM

Regarding the above, that won't quite come to pass. Federal and state laws almost unanimously require counsel to be assigned to investigate and litigate habeas corpus petitions for death-sentenced persons, which raises the costs significantly. There won't be any political pressure to shift these costs to LWOP cases (certainly not enough to succeed).

Posted by: DK | Feb 8, 2008 3:27:14 AM

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