« Litigation prompting California city to give up Halloween sex offender posting law | Main | In praise of a stat-max fine that hits a federal white-collar defendant (and not the federal taxpayer) where it hurts »

September 23, 2013

Detailing the extraordinary (and justified?) costs of one federal capital case in Philly

This remarkable local story, headlined "Bill for Savage trial easily tops $10 million," details the remarkable price tag on seeking to achieve capital justice in one remarkable federal criminal case.  Here are just some of the remarkable details:

No one protested when a federal jury recommended in June that Kaboni Savage be put to death.  In just a few years, Savage had left a grisly trail in North Philadelphia.  He gunned down one man, ordered the killing of five others, and directed the 2004 rowhouse firebombing that killed four children and two women.

The cocaine, PCP, and other drugs he peddled poisoned families, enticed boys into crime, and kept neighborhoods in decay.  Those costs are immeasurable.  Determining what taxpayers have spent to investigate, convict, and detain Savage is less so.

A review of records, as well interviews with lawyers and court officials, indicates the public price tag for stopping Savage easily tops $10 million, making it among the costliest prosecutions in city history.

Court-appointed lawyers for Savage and his codefendants have logged more than $3.3 million in fees and expenses -- a record for a federal case in Philadelphia -- and are still billing.  The defense total is a fraction of the prosecution cost, according to one expert. Government lawyers, FBI agents, and staff spent years building the case against Savage, at times working on nothing else.

The jury selection and murder-racketeering trial in Judge R. Barclay Surrick's courtroom lasted seven months.  The court shelled out $325,000 in per-diem payments and travel expenses for 1,100 prospective jurors and the 18 eventually picked for the trial, according to information compiled by court officials.  Juror lunches and snacks topped $24,000. Transcripts cost $249,000.

On most days, a half-dozen U.S. marshals ringed the courtroom and escorted the defendants, jurors, and witnesses.  Additional security and travel costs exceeded $283,000, the Marshals Service said....

"Frankly, no one should be surprised to see it cost this much," said Jon B. Gould, an American University law professor who has studied defense costs in federal capital cases. "If we're going to do it right, so that [death-penalty] convictions are accurate, it's going to cost money."

In his 2010 report to the U.S. Judicial Conference, Gould and a colleague, Lisa Greenman, found the median cost for one defendant in a capital case in 2004 was $465,000. The most expensive was $1.7 million per defendant.  Those numbers are likely higher now....

In some ways, the Savage case was an anomaly. U.S. prosecutors in Philadelphia have sought the death penalty three other times since 1998, but never before convinced a jury. It also reflects an increase in the last decade in federal capital cases, among the most complex to try. And it comes amid government budget woes....

Savage was already serving a 30-year term for a 2005 drug-trafficking conviction when prosecutors built the murder case. The 2009 indictment cited 12 deaths, but the centerpiece was the firebombing he ordered from prison. The victims were the mother, son, and relatives of Eugene Coleman, a former associate preparing to testify against Savage. "He had never been held accountable for this," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer, the lead prosecutor. "There was no question that he needed to be held accountable."

Charged with Savage were his sister, Kidada, who helped plot the arson bombing; Robert Merritt Jr., an accused accomplice in the firebombing; and Steven Northington, a hitman for Savage in two other murders. All were eligible for the death penalty, though prosecutors ultimately decided not to seek it for Kidada Savage.

William Purpura, one of Kaboni Savage's lawyers, said the trial was inevitable because prosecutors wouldn't consider a plea deal for life in prison. "The government's only offer in Kaboni Savage's case was death," he said. Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger, said the office would not confirm or deny any plea discussions. But during the trial, prosecutors argued that Savage deserved death because he had made it clear that he could - and would - orchestrate killings from prison....

In interviews, four of the eight court-appointed defense lawyers in the Savage trial said it was the most extensive and exhausting of their career, requiring 16-hour days and preventing them from taking any other clients. "Other than just sleeping, you weren't doing anything else," said Will Spade, one of Merritt's lawyers, who had been approved for $378,000 in fees through mid-August. "I turned a lot of work away - I think every defense lawyer in the case did that."

The bulk of the fees - $1.2 million - went to Savage's lawyers. Hoey, who had worked the case since February 2010 and served as the lead trial lawyer, billed $589,000. He said the case was like seven murder trials in one. When those ended, there was another trial - the penalty phase to determine whether Savage should die.

Defense lawyers also claimed $99,000 in case-related expenses through August. Purpura said nearly all of his were for his $3,000-a-month apartment at the Benjamin Franklin residences in Center City. "There was seven months where I lived in Philadelphia, stayed away from my family," he said. "We hunkered down with this case from early-morning hours to late at night."...

The U.S. Attorney's Office said it would be impossible to determine how much it spent on the case.... Gould said his research suggests prosecutions cost more than twice as much as capital defense. "They have to spend more - and they do," he said.

According to the FBI, the two investigators assigned to the Savage case spent six years working on it exclusively and an additional four years devoting half of their time to the investigation - a tally of more than $1 million even if both made less than six-figure salaries....

And still the case goes on. Kidada Savage and Merritt are awaiting sentencing and hearings on post-trial motions filed by their lawyers. Kaboni Savage's attorneys have also filed motions asking the judge to overturn the verdict or sentencing. Any decision is likely to be appealed.

Savage will wait with 58 others on death row. Only three inmates have been executed - and none in a decade - since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. Troyer, 55, said he expects Savage will cost the government time and money for years to come. "I wouldn't be surprised if this case outlives my longevity with the department -- if not the earth," he said.

I share the federal prosecutor's view that Kaboni Savage needed to be held accountable for all his carnage, and I have long thought that the death penalty is an essential punishment for anyone who has murdered multiple victims and seems likely to murder again if only given an life sentence. Nevertheless, given the federal prosecutor's also astute view that Savage seem likely to be able to appeal his death verdict (and thus forestall his execution) for decades, I find it still hard to avoid thinking that the extraordinary human and economic resources invested in this prosecution constitute a less-than-ideal expenditure of federal taxpayer resources.

September 23, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Detailing the extraordinary (and justified?) costs of one federal capital case in Philly:


In order to "do it right," we need to be sure of three things: That the defendant did it, and that he intended to do it, and that he was of sound mind when he did it.

The idea that we can't determine these three things at a cost of less than ten million bucks is preposterous. I litigated criminal cases in federal court for almost 20 years. Litigation costs this much only if people are intentionally running the meter.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, where I was employed, no case, including terrorist cases, cost anything like that. You'd be amazed at how much a little judge-imposed discipline can do to reduce costs.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 23, 2013 11:54:42 AM

Of course they could have appointed "Salaried Public Defenders" to represent the defendants.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Sep 23, 2013 5:29:38 PM

even better bill they could make the retards at the doj pay for it out of thier own pockets. This was criminal stupidity based on this!

"Savage was already serving a 30-year term for a 2005 drug-trafficking conviction when prosecutors built the murder case."

The little shit was already doing THIRTY YEARS! so that's what a release date of 2035? If our govt doesn't get it's shit together it won't even BE HERE then! So why worry about this. Let alone spend TEN MILLION plus!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 23, 2013 5:55:23 PM

I will let the utility meter run. Imagine killing this man after age 14. How far ahead in innocent, guilty lives, and money would we be? Add to those costs, the costs of the hundreds of crimes he committed each year alive but totally unsolved and unknown to authorities. He is a single handed natural disaster, in a flood range of damage, in a hurricane range of damage. He is a man made disaster, 100% the fault of the legal profession that protected and immunized his thousands of crimes. Potential cost is $billion.

The lawyers who protected him all those years, must be named, hunted down, tried by a private court, and executed for their responsibility in the loss of life and money.

I support extra-judicial self help by victims families. They should be merciless because the lawyers are merciless.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 23, 2013 10:42:03 PM

Thou Shalt Not Kill. Sixth Commandment. No exception for Y'all Can. Or Oil Can Boyd. All citizens will pay for the violation in more ways than monetary means. When you get to Heaven and have your appointment with Saint Peter at the Holy Gates and he asks if you violated any of the Ten Commandments and you lie and say no, he will say: "You lie. You are from Texas. You had twenty executions since you voted for that Governor who pardons no one. I could send you to Hell but that would be Texas, so I will send you to Limbo which is a suburb of Saint Louis called Oakland."

Posted by: Liberty1st | Sep 25, 2013 12:11:15 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB