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January 28, 2014

Noting the high costs of seeking to give Jodi Arias death penalty fame rather than LWOP pain

This new AP story, headlined "Arias defense costs Ariz. taxpayers $2 million and counting," reinforces my sense that state taxpayers will often be the folks most harmed by some prosecutorial decisions to aggressively pursue the death penalty.  Here are the basics:

Jodi Arias' legal bills have topped $2 million, a tab being footed by Arizona taxpayers that will only continue to climb with a new penalty phase set for March, officials said Monday.

Arias, 33, was convicted of murder in May, but the jury couldn't reach a verdict on her sentence. Prosecutors are now pursuing a second penalty phase with a new jury in an effort to get the death penalty.  Trial is set for March 17.  The former waitress and aspiring photographer has been held in jail in Maricopa County awaiting her fate while her legal bills continue to mount.

As of Monday, the county had paid $2,150,536.42 for her court-appointed attorneys, expert witnesses and other costs associated with her case, Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick told The Associated Press.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has refused to provide a tally of how much it has cost to prosecute the case, citing a court order that attorneys not discuss Arias-related matters.

Arias admitted she killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in 2008 at his suburban Phoenix home but claimed it was self-defense. He suffered nearly 30 knife wounds, had his throat slit and was shot in the forehead in what prosecutors argued was premeditated murder carried out in a jealous rage when Alexander wanted to end their affair.

The case captured headlines worldwide and became a cable television staple with its tales of sex, lies and a brutal killing while every minute of the trial was broadcast live. This time around, the judge will be limiting media coverage in hopes of avoiding the same publicity. There will be no live video coverage of the second penalty phase, and electronic devices will be banned, meaning reporters won't be able to provide real-time updates via Twitter as occurred during her first trial.

Under Arizona law, while her murder conviction stands, prosecutors have the option of putting on a second penalty phase with a new jury.  If the second panel fails to reach a unanimous decision, the death penalty will automatically be removed from consideration, and the judge will sentence Arias to spend her entire life behind bars or be eligible for release after 25 years.

 I have to guess that the second penalty phase now in the works and just the direct appeals if Arias gets sentenced to death will end up costing Arizona taxpayers another million or more in defense costs. And then there will surely be a number of costly habeas appeals, too, if Arias is on death row. Considering also the state court and state prosecutorial expenses, I do not think it inflated to assert that Arizona taxpayers are likely to end up spending at least $5,000,000 just to have Jodi Arias set and kept on death row.

As the title of this post highlights, this multi-million dollar expense seems like a great waste of state resources because the effort to send Arias to Arizona's death row has raised the profile of her case and helps ensure Arias is now forever a hero to the anti-death-penalty community. In addition, Arizona already has over 125 murderers on its death row but only gets around to executing a few each year, and thus Arias is likely to die of natural causes before being executed by the state even if sent to death row. Had Arizona prosecutors been able to cut a deal with Arias to take the death penalty off the table, at least after the first jury could not decide on a sentence, taxpayers would have saved a lot of money and Arias would likely now just be facing the pain of LWOP rather than the fame that comes with being a high-profile capital defendant.

I make these points not to defend Arias but rather to highlight the significant budgetary costs of seeking the death penalty in hard cases. I also could not help but research where all this Arizona taxpayer money now wasted on a fight over murderous Arias might have been better used. This lengthy Arizona budget document seems to reveal that the Arizona Crime Victims Programs -- which is under the authority  of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" -- has an annual budget of around $5,000,000. I am inclined to think that most folks, even those who support the death penalty in many cases, probably would share my view that it would have been a better use of state tax resources to double the funds for crime victims programming rather that keep seeking a death verdict that likely will never get carried out.

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January 28, 2014 at 04:19 PM | Permalink


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Doug --

Timmy McVeigh's defense cost $15,000,000. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-10-28/news/0110280258_1_timothy-mcveigh-district-judge-richard-matsch-sentencing

That amount vastly exceeds what has been or will be spent on Jodi Arias.

Is it your view that, because of cost, we should have given up on seeking the death penalty for McVeigh?

More generally: If the death penalty cost less than LWOP, would you view that as a strong argument for more executions?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 28, 2014 4:47:04 PM


I am interested in whether you see a basis to oppose LWOP sentences in a case like this. Most other first world countries' justice systems seem to function just fine without LWOP sentences. What is the objection to allowing a possibility for parole based on further assessment of the offender down the road? I was struck, for example, by the sentence for the LWOP sentence second degree murder conviction of the Bears fan in Florida, where the defendant plead guilty, seemed remorseful, and appeared to snap in an isolated incident. Wouldn't justice -- not to mention efficiency and accuracy in sentencing -- be better served by not forcing judges to make final decisions based only on the record availability at the time of sentencing?

Even putting aside the death penalty debate, any insights as to the proclivity for LWOP in this country, versus many most others? Arizona seems to have it partially right in allowing for the possibility of parole based after 25 years. That many states have automatic LWOP for murder convictions seems especially senseless. Not all defendants are similarly situated, either at the time of sentencing or down the road.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 28, 2014 5:16:44 PM

Bill, as you may know, I generally favor an exclusively federal death penalty in order to be used in cases of political terrorism like McVeigh and the Boston Marathon Bomber and the Unibomber and the Tucson shooter and some other mass killers with national impact. One reason is because the feds can afford a costly capital system a lot more than a state like Arizona. (E.g., the $15 million cost per person for the feds was about a nickel for the US population, but the cost per Az citizen for Arias is about $1.) More to the point, an extreme mass murder like the OK bombing is a signature case worth pursuing capitally if a jurisdiction has capital punishment. A lover's quarrel with one dead guy and a claim of self defense hardly seems like a signature case for the death penalty.

In addition, I am amazed and somewhat shocked that the McVeigh trial cost so much, and I guess I suppose we are lucky he dropped his appeals. Given that the feds have not tried to execute anyone for more than a decade, I am sure McVeigh would still be alive and running up even more taxpayer costs on appeals (as are now the 59 other murderers now serving functional LWOP sentences, some of whom are starting their third decade on the federal row). If the taxpayer bill for McVeigh was not $30 million and still running AND he was still enjoying his life on the row, I do think I would be asking whether the capital punishment game in that case was worth the cost.

Perhaps I am wrong to think Jodi Arias will never get executed even if sent to the row, but the data on executions of women seem to support my view. And perhaps I am wrong that Arias is more famous and will have more fans as a capital defendant than as an LWOP murderer. And perhaps I am wrong that Az citizens would rather spend lots of money trying to put Arias on death row than in other criminal justice services. But the point of this post is to highlight that taxpayers are the ones who pay the high costs of a capital system. Maybe those costs are worth it, but in the Arias case I have my doubts.

On your more generally point, as a utilitarian, I do think the relative economic costs of various sentences are very valid considerations, and that is why I often highlight them here. It is also a reason I tend, Mark, to oppose LWOP sentences because they seem to me pretty costly relative to their public safety benefits. Of course, I am here just talking about how I want my tax dollars allocated: to help make me and my family safer. Others may want their tax dollars used in other ways, and in a democracy, majority rules on these fronts.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 28, 2014 6:41:56 PM

Again. The lawyers are fish swimming in the sewer, unaware of the air or huge continents above. Amazing, they cannot grasp these expenses as intentional rent seeking, make work jobs for the lawyer, totally pretextual in the absence of any factual doubt about guilt. Pretextual means a false use of the law, i.e. lying, bad faith, stealing from the tax payer, lying to a government official.

If the death penalty is fit for "mass killers with national impact," is there anyone more fitting that description than the members of the Supreme Court that have designed and finely tuned this system, generating $billions in appellate costs, and costing the lives of a million unnecessary murder victims over the last five decades? They back tracked from a ban of the death penalty, after seeing hundreds of lawyer jobs disappear. They will not speed up the death penalty to maintain these jobs. The tuning is exquisitely precise for the generation of the maximum in lawyer fees. I see no purpose served by the current system outside of lawyer advantage. The condemned should be surveyed to see if LWOP is cruel or not.

Someone explain why this is not a good plea agreement: we give you a great send off, hookers, illegal drugs, great meal, and $million to your estate, more for organ donations if qualified medically, if you consent to committing suicide by overdose of cheap barbiturates and liquor, before midnight today, $million to the estate of the murder victim for symmetry and fairness.

Take the rest of the budget for the death penalty and hire retired or highly experienced investigators with absolute subpoena powers of all parties and non-parties, to review each death case for factual and guilt error, rather than know nothing appellate judges for errors in the law. Fire these judges. They can become more productive high school history teachers.

This system would serve incapacitation, would reduce the exoneration rate, and compensate needy families, rather than well off lawyers.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 28, 2014 8:19:56 PM

Mark: The number of murders in prison is an order of magnitude greater than the number of executions. And most are likely to be covered up to avoid second guessing of the administrations.

LWOP is a absolutely immune license to kill better than that of James Bond. Bond has to answer to the civil service and to left wing politicians for his extra-judicial executions of the enemies of the Crown. A lifer killed a female guard who spurned his advances. The supervisor of the guards said, "He definitely has lost his cafeteria privileges now."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 28, 2014 8:27:06 PM

Jody an hero? Oh, come on!

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 9:04:18 AM

You know who Jodi Arias is, claudio giusti, right? How come? Dare I speculate that it is mainly because Arizona is trying to have her sentenced to death for her crime?

Dozens of folks get sentenced to LWOP and/or other extreme mandatory minimum prison sentences for much lesser crimes than Arias every month in the US, and I suspect the vast majority of those who complain about the death penalty know any of their names (e.g., do abolitionists know the name of the person given LWOP in Florida for just downloading some child porn on his laptop or the person in Tennessee who got 15 years for possessing shotgun shells or the many folks serving LWOP or very long prison sentences in Louisiana for marijuana distribution)?

I suppose using the term "hero" is not quite accurate, so I think "cause" might be a better word choice: Jodi Arias and her case will be a cause for death penalty opponents if and only as long as capital punishment is pursued; if she gets any other sentence, she will no longer be a cause for those who see capital punishment's abolition and will become one of hundreds of thousand largely-forgotten, faceless and nameless US offenders confined in prison for a very long time.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 29, 2014 9:46:57 AM

Dear Prof B,
I am so sorry, but Italian abolitionist activists are no more than one hundred (may be half). They simply have no resources for the 50.000 American lwop or for the 50.000 “de facto” lwop. Malheureusement the American abolitionists consider lwop an alternative to capital punishment and I find big difficulties when I write about it (in Europe lwop I forbidden). I am of course against lwop and I know very well the situation of the American Justice (you are one of my favorite sources) but I cannot save USA. I just can write something about it.

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 10:57:06 AM

It would be useful in cases like this to simply compare the numbers.

Bottom line, if she is sentenced to LWOP, what roughly is the cost, assuming she has a full trial and the usual set of appeals.

As to money, question if there would be a trade. NY, e.g., had their own death penalty tossed by the courts. They did not re-establish it via a statutory fix to deal with the problem. Did they use the money saved in future trials etc. for victim rights? Not that I disagree that it would be a better use of money.

But, I'm an "abolitionist," so I guess that's to be expected.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 29, 2014 11:02:44 AM

“The former waitress and aspiring photographer”
“awaiting her fate”
“claimed it was self-defense”
“was convicted of murder in May, but”

-- If the conviction is no wise in doubt, and I see no evidence to suggest so, then to proclaim her pre-murder occupation and aspiration,
as well as her ludicrous excuse for a pre-meditated murder with a verdict returned in 90 minutes, is poor journalism. --

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 29, 2014 11:14:59 AM

does someone remember the story of Gaile Owens Tn ??

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 11:22:04 AM

By conflating divergent cases, you exhibit less discretion than a dirty bomb or perhaps one who would poison a municipal water supply.
Do you find it too difficult to argue against the death penalty for this case?


Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 29, 2014 1:17:42 PM

Hang Luis Posada Carriles and I will respond

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 1:40:14 PM

Adamakis --

You must forgive Claudio. He opposes the DP for those who have been convicted, and supports it, so far as I have seen, only for those who have been acquitted.

Luis Posada Carriles was acquitted by a jury of all charges against him in the United States. That was in April 2011. I believe he was, years earlier, convicted in Panama, but was pardoned there.

If I ever said an acquitted person should be executed, my usual critics would howl with glee that I had finally slipped the rails. Claudio says it, and not a single liberal has a problem.

Far out!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2014 2:46:22 PM

LPC is proud to be a terrorist.
"he was not being tried for killing the 73 people aboard the Cubana airliner or the tourists in Havana; his charges revolved around lying to immigration agents about his trip to the U.S. and illegally crossing the border"
LPC is a good terrorist, like the good soldiers of My Lai.

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 3:17:22 PM

Your always miss the occasion to demonstrate how impartial is American justice. No rich persons, no Cuban terrorists, no war crime soldiers. Only a few destitute blacks and white trash.

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 3:36:06 PM

Capital Punishment is like slavery: nobody has the right to impose it.
Death penalty is a clear violation of human rights: right to equality, right to life and freedom from torture.
It is an “arbitrary and capricious” black hole in the Law: a land with unclear and inconsistently drawn borders, changing in time and space.
It is a “privilege” of the poor, because “capital punishment means that those without the capital get the punishment”.
It is an irreversible punishment and kills the insane and the innocent.
It is not self-defense, but revenge.
It is not a more effective deterrent than prison and makes worst the evil it pretends to cure, because death penalty brutalizes and makes society more violent.
Death penalty is a human sacrifice, a ritualistic slaughter carried out in cold blood by the State. It is a travesty of justice and “nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering”.
Sooner or later everybody will realize that capital punishment is an immoral, cruel, racist, inconsistent, not working violation of human rights: “the pointless and needless extinction of life”

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 29, 2014 3:50:13 PM


"We're sorry, that page can't be found."

Posted by: Joe | Jan 29, 2014 4:39:43 PM

Claudio --

"Sooner or later everybody will realize that capital punishment is an immoral, cruel, racist, inconsistent, not working violation of human rights: 'the pointless and needless extinction of life'."

You gotta love it when someone is actually airheaded enough to say things like, "Sooner or later, everybody will realize that [X]...."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2014 4:52:55 PM

I should had wrote “even the most stolid hangman friend”

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 30, 2014 5:36:35 AM


|| In 1859, on hearing of a possible reprieve for convicted murderer Thomas Smeghurst, Dickens wrote: “I would hang any home secretary, Whig, Tory, Radical, or otherwise,
who should step in between so black a scoundrel and the gallows” ||


Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 30, 2014 8:23:08 AM

According to V.A.C. Gatrell (The Hanging Tree) in old England they had 35.000 death sentences and 7.000 executions in 60 years (1770-1830).
It is more than 100 executions per year.
With a population of 13 millions only in 1830 it is a “Chinese rate” of more than 10.000 killing per year.

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 30, 2014 10:34:31 AM

Claudio is ahypocrite. He really supports the death penalty of murder victims. Not a word about them.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 30, 2014 12:58:56 PM

The problem is the Strickland game.

Courts (mis)apply Strickland to create an arbitrary standard of what a competent attorney would do in a case. The problem is that in a lot of cases (particularly in capital cases) that standard morphs into what would a competent attorney do with unlimited resources. If competent representation is the representation that Bill Gates would want if he was accused of the crime, then the provision of indigent defense (or near indigent defense for the more serious offenses) is going to be very expensive. If the standard is merely what a mid-level manager would want (be able to afford), then the cost would be a lot less than it currently is.

When comparing the expenses of the death penalty to the next most serious punishment, the problem is that the death penalty is the most serious punishment currently. If the death penalty was abolished, would the current very high standards for capital defense be bumped down to the new most serious penalty? If that happens, then the game starts all over again, but it will be LWOP or Life w/o parole for 30 years, or something similar that will become the new "wasteful" penalty.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 30, 2014 3:32:35 PM

Hypocrite? Who? Me? Oh Please! I have been working for Argentinian desaparecidos when you Americans were palsy-walsy whith the Generals who murdered them. Hypocrite is American death penalty.

Posted by: claudio giusti | Jan 30, 2014 6:57:45 PM

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