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Money spent pursuing death penalty cases arguably could be better used. Colorado and Kansas are considering abolishing the death penalty to save their budgets.

The high cost of the death penalty 

Nickel-and-dimed to death

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The cheapest part of executing a prisoner is the killing itself.

The state's procedure of lethal injection costs about $500: $168 in medicine and syringes, plus roughly $340 for the doctor, who is present for three to four hours, according to the N.C. Department of Correction. (See details at end of story.)

Yet court fees related to capital trials, those in which prosecutors seek the death penalty for murder, cost North Carolina millions of dollars. The costs are incurred even if the charges are reduced or dismissed. Given the state's budget crisis, which has forced lawmakers to cut funding for education, social services and children's health insurance, money spent on pursuing death penalty cases arguably could be better used. Nationwide, several states, including Colorado and Kansas, are considering abolishing the death penalty to save money.

In North Carolina, Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, recently told the House Ways and Means Committee, "We might want to, at some point, revisit whether the death penalty ought to be imposed, or whether we ought to impose a life sentence without parole, because it's a strong, persuasive and convincing argument when you talk about the astronomical expense of capital cases."

Capital costs, capital crimes

There are 163 people on death row; they have been there for an average of 11 years.

Capital cases are those in which a defendant is accused of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances, and faces a death sentence at some point in the legal process.

Potential capital cases are those in which a defendant is charged with first-degree or undesignated murder. More than 80 percent of these cases result in a conviction of second-degree murder or less.

Noncapital proceeded cases are those that were potentially capital, but for which the prosecution never sought the death penalty. Instead, prosecutors sought life imprisonment, although those charges may later be dropped or reduced.

The Indy came up with the $36 million savings figure by calculating the average defense cost charged by IDS—$63,700—times the number of cases in which the state sought the death penalty—733. Total: $46.7 million.

We then calculated the average cost —$14,500—of each of the 1,785 potentially capital cases in which the state sought life imprisonment.Total: $25.8 million.

Assuming the death penalty cases would have been adjudicated similiarly to the non-death penalty cases—trial, plea bargain, etc.—the state would have saved $49,000 on each of the 733 cases: $36.1 million.

Source: N.C. Indigent Defense Services, Department of Correction

Between 2001 and 2008, N.C. Indigent Defense Services cost the state an additional $36 million when prosecutors sought the death penalty instead of life imprisonment for 733 people, according to the Indy's analysis of a 2008 IDS report (PDF, 1.3 MB). (See box at right.) IDS is a publicly funded agency that provides private attorneys for defendants charged with capital crimes, but cannot afford a lawyer.

Several factors contribute to higher costs for death penalty cases: The state requires that capital defendants have two attorneys; there may be a greater need for expert testimony and a there is a separate sentencing phase.

"The attorneys have to treat their cases as serious capital cases, unless they're told it's not," says Thomas Maher, executive director of N.C Indigent Defense Services. "The result is, a significant amount of money is spent on capital cases, although at the end of the day, district attorneys as a group only find a dozen in a year they even think are worthy of putting in front of a jury—and of that group, the majority don't get death."

Of the 733 defendants IDS represented who faced the death penalty, less than 3 percent—20—received death sentences.

Between FY 2002 and FY 2006, the state paid an average of $104,000 in defense fees for capital trials in which prosecutors sought the death penalty and brought the case before a jury. That amount is more than four times the cost of a noncapital trial in which prosecutors initially sought life without parole.

Fees incurred by the prosecution were not available at press time, but would add to the total.

Part of the reason for the extra expense in capital cases is that attorney and expert-witness fees begin accruing immediately—even if the charges are eventually dropped or reduced or the cases don't go to trial.

Cases resulting in a death sentence—just one of 12 capital-murder trials last year—are automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court; defendants are eligible for a lengthy post-conviction process, adding to the cost. In the past two years alone, three North Carolina inmates have been released under these circumstances—aided by investigations by nonprofit legal groups—after serving a combined 35 years in prison for crimes for which they were exonerated.

"North Carolinians are paying for an extremely broken death penalty system," says Jeremy Collins, campaign coordinator for the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium. "We're paying a car note on a vehicle that does not run properly."

Death row inmates are expensive. In a 1993 study (PDF, 826 KB), Philip Cook, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, compared two hypothetical cases—a defendant sentenced to death and executed within 10 years and a defendant sentenced to life who survives for 20 years in prison. Cook found that a defendant sentenced to death and executed within 10 years costs the state an average of an additional $163,000 in trial, prison and post-appeal fees compared to a defendant sentenced to life who survives for 20 years in prison.

Cook is updating the study this year.

"The myth that the death penalty is economical comes from the myth that prisoners are going to be executed instead of taking up room and board in prison," Cook says.

Earlier this month, after lobbying against the Racial Justice Act (see "District attorneys differ on Racial Justice Act," June 10), Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby told the Indy that analyzing the potential savings from limiting capital punishment represents a "fallacious way to make an evaluation."

"I don't think that we ought to be trying to evaluate someone's life in terms of dollars," he said. "What we ought to be concerned about is whether it's right and sound."

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