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December 17, 2014

Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty

The Marshall Project has this effective new piece on the modern realities of administering capital punishment. The piece is headlined "The Slow Death of the Death Penalty: The public supports it, but the costs are lethal." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

While many prosecutors are still reluctant to admit that finances play a role in their decisions about the death penalty, some of them – especially in small, rural counties – have been increasingly frank in wondering whether capital punishment is worth the price to their communities. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.”

Some prosecutors are far more blunt, and even hyperbolic, as they lament the state of affairs. “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County in the Texas panhandle. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”

Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the cost of carrying out a death penalty trial has risen steadily. Increasing legal protections for defendants have translated into more and more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Where once psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview sufficient to establish the mental state of a defendant, now it is routine to obtain an entire mental health history. Lab tests have become more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams now routinely employ mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant’s life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency at the sentencing phase. Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which often last for years. Throughout those years, the defendant lives on death row, which tends to cost more due to heightened security.

In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where county governments pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants (nearly all of whom are indigent) when they go to trial, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the fiscal burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for the expenses of a trial.

But even with that help, county officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.

In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.

Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. In Texas, they point to Jasper County, near the Louisiana border, where in June 1998 three white supremacists killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragging his body for more than three miles. The murder made international headlines and led to new state and federal hate crime legislation.

December 17, 2014 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

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