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August 16, 2011

Documenting the high costs of pursuing the ultimate punishment in Washington state

This recent article from the Seattle Times, which is headlined "King County's death-penalty dilemma: Soaring cost worth it?," provides a local perspective on this economics of the modern death penalty in one region.  Here are excerpts:

The cost of prosecuting two men and a woman accused of two of the most heinous crimes in King County in recent years is $656,564 and counting. The cost of defending them is even higher: $4.3 million, and also climbing.

Like other counties in the state, King County is struggling with the rising cost of criminal justice, which has forced Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to eliminate the jobs of 36 prosecutors since 2008.  But while budget constraints have forced some counties to all but abandon death-penalty cases, King County currently has two active capital cases.  A third, last year's prosecution of Conner Schierman for killing a Kirkland family of four in 2006, has thus far cost the county $2.4 million.

The county's current death-penalty cases include the prosecution of Christopher Monfort, who is accused of ambushing two Seattle police officers, killing one, on Halloween night 2009.  Two other defendants, Michele Anderson and Joseph McEnroe, could also face execution if convicted of the slayings of six members of Anderson's family on Christmas Eve 2007.

While trials for the three defendants are months off, defense lawyers are racking up costs for expert witnesses, investigators, forensic analysis and other elements crucial for death-penalty trials.  In the meantime, prosecutors, police officers and crime-lab analysts are also tallying up costs while prepping for the trials.

Portland-based defense attorney Jeff Ellis, who handles death-penalty cases across the country, said the high costs of prosecuting death-penalty cases — which can also include years of appeals — has resulted in a drop in death-penalty cases.  King County, with two cases, is an anomaly, he said. "There is a downturn in the number of death-penalty sentences being sought and imposed because of the costs associated with them," Ellis said. "What's happening now [in King County] is a reverse of what's happening nationwide."....

Satterberg defends the county's filing of death-penalty cases despite the high cost.  He blames much of the increased costs on what he calls an "industry" that has been created by death-penalty attorneys.  "It is the law of our state and a punishment we reserve for the worst of the worst offenders," he said of the death penalty. "If people want to change the policy they should do so through their elected representatives.  It shouldn't be done by defense attorneys running up the bill."

The most recent study of state death-penalty costs indicated that a death-penalty case generates roughly $470,000 more in costs at the trial level than a murder case in which the death penalty is not sought — plus an additional $70,000 or so in court costs, a figure that includes courtroom personnel.  The same study, released by the Washington State Bar Association in 2006, found that more than $200,000 on average is spent on appeal costs.

August 16, 2011 at 08:02 AM | Permalink

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