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February 9, 2007

Capital craziness and costs in Arizona

This Arizona Republic article provides some details on the fall-out from an apparent move by prosecutors in Maricopa County to pursue every possible capital case:

Maricopa County's growing death-penalty crisis will be aired at an unprecedented March 2 court hearing, and key players, including County Attorney Andrew Thomas have been asked to testify.  Today, Maricopa County's Presiding Criminal Judge James Keppel ordered the hearing to resolve a case that's become a showdown between prosecutors and defense attorneys over the avalanche of capital cases in the court system.

There is a shortage of qualified attorneys to represent people who face the death penalty. At last count, 12 death penalty cases don't have the lead attorney for the legally required two-attorney defense team, said Mark Kennedy, director of the Office of Contract Counsel.

There are a record 130-plus death-penalty cases pending in Maricopa County, more than in any other Arizona county. The Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court created a taskforce last month to address the issue.

The detail that I find most stunning is the fact that there is "130-plus death-penalty cases pending in Maricopa County."  Let's put that number in some capital context, help by this data:

And yet, prosecutors in one county in Arizona believe that 130-plus persons should be facing capital charges.  Wow!  Considering that, just by bringing capital charges, the county prosecutors likely cost the state at least $100,000 in extra lawyer and court expenses, the Maricopa County prosecutors through its capital charging practices have, in essence, allocated an extra $10 million in tax dollars to capital punishment administration by virtue of having decided to pursue 130+, rather than just, say, 30+ capital prosecutions.  Once again, Wow!

February 9, 2007 at 05:30 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Barbara Owens | Feb 9, 2007 9:40:42 PM

Doug, I think your $100,000 figure for the extra cost of trying a case capitally rather than noncapitally is way too low. I have tried many capital cases and have three pending.

In a capital case in North Carolina it usually takes a month to select a jury instead of two or three days in a noncapital murder case. Two lawyers instead of one. We routinely use a multitude of experts in capital trials. Mitigation investigators to give us a full family history.

Then, of course, capital cases involve a second trial in the event of a conviction of first degree murder, which would be the sentencing phase.

If there is a conviction, there are thousands of pages of transcript for the appeal, massive amounts of time writing briefs, etc. Then , if the appeal does not succeed a new round of lawyers comes in and tries the original lawyers on ineffectiveness claims.

I'm getting ready to try a capital case in which we are trying mightily to persuade the DA to accept a guilty plea to and life without parole. The entire proceeding could be done in half a day in court. So, instead of adding my client to 35,000 other inmates in the system, at minimal increase in total cost, the taxpayers will spend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to single my client out and try him capitally. It is sort of like the example I often using when speaking about the death penalty to civic clubs. I ask them to assume that the light bill for the room in which the club is meeting is $100 a month and there are 100 people in the room. What is the light bill when 2 more people enter the room? Compared to building a top security room for those 2 people with its own light bill.

Does Ohio still have the system that requires the taxpayers of the county in which the capital trial is held to pay one half of the cost of the defense of the trial? To me, that is a wonderful way of imposing political accountability on prosecutors for their choice to try marginal cases capitally. The Arizona taxpayers for the rest of the counties in the state may want to consider making the citizens of Maricopa county confront the financial realities of capital litigation by going to such a system.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Feb 9, 2007 10:11:56 PM

The fact that capital cases cost so much is an indictment of the nonsense capital sentencing "jurisprudence" that has come from our courts. The decision to deprive the life of a murderer really should not be that big of a deal. And the state's ability to impose such a penalty should not be at a huge price tag--given that society has a right to impose it. Forcing jurisdictions to break the bank is every bit as demeaning to democracy as the courts' collective effort to stymie the availability of this punishment.

And Bruce, your argument about light bulbs etc. works in a way you wouldn't like. I think that we can all agree that the finding of an innocent man guilty is far more of an injustice than the death penalty for a guilty, but non-capital eligible murderer. Couldn't all of the resources being expended (read: wasted) on penalty-phase issues be better spent on guilt/innocence phase issues?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 12, 2007 4:34:49 PM

Dear Federalist:

Unfortunately, there are inescapable political and societal implications of the implementation of the death penalty. If a state legislature authorizes a county prosecutor to seek the ultimate punishment at his/her own whim, the situation in Maricopa County, AZ was inevitable. It is unfair to the American people for a “law and order/tough on crime” political body to legislate rules for implementing the death penalty, and yet remain above the fray when it comes time to pay the associated costs. The endgame of Bruce’s light bulb analogy results in, say, the Arizona state legislature authorizes the specs for this 2-light bulb room, but Andrew Thomas just ordered designer drapes, a ton of furniture, and a crystal chandelier (2 bulbs just won’t do!). He single-handedly increased this one room’s budget 50-fold and isn’t held accountable for the bill (and neither is the legislature). It’s also high time this legislature take responsibility for the judicial disaster and either spend taxpayer dollars to fund this program, or abolish capital punishment in the Grand Canyon state altogether.

There are many things we as a society might like to do (fully fund a college education, or inspect every imported container for WMD’s), but realities call for some tough decisions for these priorities (i.e. search 1 in 10 containers instead). The judge was right to call a hearing to settle this matter. And then we’ll see if Andrew Thomas has as much contempt for the judiciary as he does for his (defense attorney) colleagues.

Prosecutor Thomas may have inadvertently caused a meltdown in a poorly functioning capital punishment train by switching it into high gear before adding water and another coal car. Then this smoldering mess can serve as a backdrop for his press conference as he announces a run for higher political office?

We should hope not.

Posted by: PR | Feb 22, 2007 12:37:20 PM

GPS tracking systems are only a small part of what it takes to keep our children safe from sexual predators. First of all, legislators need to ensure that these sex offenders cannot reside anywhere near children. Police need to spend less time hiding with their radar guns to give speeding tickets and more time monitoring areas where sex offenders reside. GPS tracking bracelets are a must! The people monitoring GPS trackers most be competent and knowledgeable.

Cutting funds to monitor sex offenders can in now way help our children

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