« Environment - "Appalachian Wind Turbines Kill Bats, Judge Says" [Updated] | Main | Ind. Decisions - Redmond v. State, revisited this week by the Indiana Code Revision Commission »

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ind. Courts - "Is death penalty worth the price? Single case can cost taxpayers as much as $1 million"

That is the headline to this lengthy, front-page story today in the Indianapolis Star, reported by Jon Murray:

Nowhere is the issue more pressing than in Marion County, where the costs this year alone to prepare for three potential death penalty trials has reached $659,000 and counting, according to the Public Defender Agency.

By the time appeals are exhausted -- and all the experts and legal costs are tallied -- the death penalty price tag for one case alone can reach $1 million.

For example, Desmond Turner's defense in the high-profile 2006 Hamilton Avenue slayings case has cost Marion County and the state nearly $850,000 -- among the state's most expensive -- and all the costs are not in.

"Every time a prosecutor elects to charge the death penalty," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, "there's a giant sucking sound of $1 million going down the tube. . . . Some people just don't accept that it costs more to kill them than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives."

Several studies have shown that the pursuit of a life sentence costs less than the death penalty, even considering the expense of a convict's longer incarceration. A state panel in 2002 estimated the cost difference for taxpayers at 30 percent to 38 percent.

In Turner's case, taxpayers will, in effect, pay both ways. After the county paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund what was expected to be a death penalty defense, Prosecutor Carl Brizzi decided to withdraw his death penalty request a few weeks before the trial.

Turner was convicted of seven counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 88 years -- a tab that taxpayers will continue to pick up.

Another capital murder case, set for trial in Marion County next year, already has cost taxpayers almost as much as Turner's. Defense attorneys have submitted bills totaling $814,000 for Kenneth Lee Allen, who is accused of killing his mother and two grandparents in early 2005. * * *

Advocates of capital punishment, including Brizzi, say the ultimate penalty is still worth the trouble and cost for murder cases that they consider among the worst of the worst.

Those high costs stem, in part, from rules in Indiana that provide expensive defense teams for those facing the death penalty, one of many reforms enacted as states and courts have struggled to define the meaning of the U.S. Bill of Rights' guarantees of a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel.

Advocates say anything less would shortchange not only the accused but also victims' relatives and others affected by a crime when a defendant's life is at stake.

"Number one, you could end up with an innocent person sent to death," said Brent Westerfeld, an Indianapolis defense attorney whose clients have included Turner. "And you could also end up putting victims through the process again (if the conviction is overturned). Keep in mind the goal is to get a just and fair result."

In Indiana, counties receive reimbursements from the state for half of defense expenses in capital cases.

Even after the Marion County Public Defender Agency receives state reimbursements, the defense costs are enough to nearly break its budget. It has cut back in several other areas to compensate.

"Every dollar we spend attempting to do this, that's money we could have spent elsewhere," Chief Public Defender Robert Hill said. "(But) we have a constitutional mandate to defend our clients."

Then there is the price tag on the other side. Prosecutors, courts and the prison system also incur enormous costs in death penalty cases. But those expenses -- particularly for prosecutors, who rely on salaried lawyers and resources from other agencies -- are more difficult to track.

High defense costs are perhaps inevitable under the Indiana Supreme Court's Criminal Rule 24. Since the early 1990s, it has mandated two qualified attorneys for indigent defendants as soon as a prosecutor invokes the machinery of the death penalty.

Numerous overturned death sentences during the 1980s spurred that and other changes, including the start of state reimbursements and the setting of experience standards and caseload limits for the defense lawyers.

In Turner's case, Brizzi's decision to withdraw the death penalty just weeks before Turner's trial couldn't erase three years of vigorous preparation by his defense team.

Brizzi worried that a jury would demand rock-solid forensic evidence that prosecutors lacked. He took the death penalty off the table in exchange for Turner's waiver of his right to a jury.

Pursuing a life sentence for Turner from the start likely would have cost taxpayers a fraction in defense-related expenses.

Even so, Brizzi said, nobody could have foreseen the turn in evidence. And prosecutors would have lost the leverage that Brizzi thinks was crucial to winning convictions: "If we would have started at life without parole, Turner would have had no incentive to waive the jury." * * *

Westerfeld, who represented Turner with co-counsel Lorinda Youngcourt, said taxpayers received a "cut-rate deal" for a case involving complex litigation akin to a lengthy civil case. Attorney fees have accounted for about half of Turner's bills, which likely will grow.

Until Brizzi withdrew the death penalty request, Turner's lawyers were paid $96 per hour, less than half or even a third what a private client would pay. The state-mandated rate has since increased to $106 for newly filed capital murder cases.

"Yeah, they're expensive and cost a lot of money," Westerfeld said, "but there's a lot at stake. . . . It doesn't make sense we're spending so much to kill people when we have the life without parole option that keeps the public safe."

Hill, the county's chief public defender who has spent years defending clients against the death penalty, says high costs result from more sophisticated lawyers exhausting all avenues. They investigate the accounts of sometimes more than 100 witnesses, seek out forensic and psychiatric experts, and aggressively pursue investigative leads that might not pan out.

All of it in the name of building a full-throated defense of a client's innocence -- and also of his or her life.

Since 2000, Hill's agency reports, defense bills in Marion County death penalty cases have totaled $3.9 million.

Statewide, defense costs for trials and appeals have cost taxpayers nearly $20 million since 1990, including state reimbursements, according to estimates by the Indiana Public Defender Commission. That includes $6.5 million spent on Marion County cases.

Attorney Monica Foster, who is on the defense teams for Allen and another death-penalty defendant, Ronald L. Davis, said taxpayers should be outraged at the cost of capital cases. But she said the expense is vital when a person's life is at stake.

With a business to run and staff to pay, she said, she's not getting rich off $100 an hour.

"I don't do these cases for the money," Foster said. "It's ridiculous that we spend this much money."

But cutting corners before trial, she said, would only increase the chances of a court reversing an unfair conviction later -- or requiring yet another costly trial.

From one of the side-bars:
The defense costs in recent cases: Marion County has had four open cases this year in which prosecutors sought the death penalty. The Public Defender Agency pays legal expenses for the defendants, receiving state reimbursement for half. Here are the cases and their defense costs to date:

» Ronald L. Davis, 32: Accused of killing two women and two young children in January 2008 inside a house on Hovey Street on the Near Northside. Trial set for Aug. 23. Cost: $244,620.

» Desmond Turner, 31: Convicted in October of killing four adults and three children in June 2006 inside a house on Hamilton Avenue on the Near Eastside. Death penalty request was dropped before trial. Serving life sentence without parole, plus 88 years. Cost: $848,871.

» Kenneth Lee Allen, 34: Accused of killing his mother and two grandparents and burying their bodies in concrete in the basement of a house on the Eastside in early 2005. Trial set for May 24. Cost: $813,579.

» John Adams, 35: Accused of killing his wife and infant son and stuffing their bodies into a freezer at his Westside home in 1999. His trial is on hold indefinitely because he has been found incompetent to stand trial. Cost: $312,242.

Here are some earlier, related ILB entries:

Dec. 9, 2009 - "Execution of Wrinkles to end 2-year state hiatus Cost is factor in trend away from death penalty"

Dec. 6 - 2009 - More on "Bill for capital cases delivered to taxpayers"

Nov. 8, 2009 - "Bill for capital cases delivered to taxpayers"

Feb. 25, 2009 - "Citing Cost, States Consider End to Death Penalty"

Sept. 25, 2008
- "Finances a factor in capital punishment"

Feb. 17, 2008 - "Wilkes trial costs adding up"

June 16, 2007 - "Rios trial costs ballooning: Court to request another $340,000 for murder case" - some quotes from the end of this 2007 entry:

The story also has discussion of the cost of a death penalty case v.s. the cost of incarceration for life.

The ILB has had a number of earlier entries of the costs of death penalty cases, including "Death penalty sends a state's legal costs soaring" from 11/5/06, "Cost of death penalty trial factored into Pike County decision" from 10/17/06, "Three trials in the Camm murder case have cost Floyd County taxpayers about $1.8 million" from 4/3/06.

The Camm retrial costs led to legislation: see these entries from 1/27/07 and 2/5/07. As reported in this 4/30/07 ILB entry, the new state budget does include language providing for "state reimbursement on new trial costs when the Indiana Court of Appeals or Indiana Supreme Court calls for a new trial."

This ILB entry from Nov. 5, 2006, looks at death penalty legal costs at the appellate level.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 10, 2009 08:40 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts