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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ind. Law - "Costs, public sentiment mean fewer Indiana death penalty cases"

From Lesley Weidenbener 's column in the Sunday Louisville Courier-Journal:

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels acknowledged during a recent interview that implementing a death sentence — essentially allowing an execution to take place without intervention — is one of the duties he was least prepared for when he took office.

But it’s an issue that future governors will be facing less often, he said.

It’s a change Daniels attributed to the changing public perception about the death penalty but it’s one no doubt connected to cash-strapped county budgets as well.

Daniels is right that support for the executions of murderers has been dropping fairly steadily since about 1994, according to polling company Gallup. * * *

Thirty-three states still impose the death penalty, although there’s been a trend toward abolishing it. New Jersey repealed its death penalty in 2007, New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, and Connecticut in 2012, according to the Indiana Public Defenders Council.

Also, Maryland has passed legislation narrowly restricting its use of the death penalty.

In Indiana, there’s been little talk about such a move. But still, death penalty cases — and death sentences — have been dropping steadily.

According to the public defenders council, local prosecutors were seeking the death penalty an average of roughly seven times per year from 1997 through 2001. In the last few years, that average has dropped to fewer than two.

And the number of death sentences actually imposed annually has dropped to nearly none.

Eight Hoosiers are currently on death row — the last convicted in 2007 — and three more people have had their sentences vacated in cases in which the state is appealing, according to the council.

The reason may be partly public perception but it’s just as likely because of the cost a county faces when trying to seek a death sentence.

State law and court rules set strict guidelines about who can serve as defense attorneys in the cases, which means counties are often paying more for indigent defendants — plus the cost of forensic evidence and experts.

Death punishments also come with automatic appeals and extensive options for defendants to try to seek commutation, including that last request to a governor for help.

It all comes with a cost. A 2-year-old analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency found that a death penalty case typically costs about $450,000 — and higher profile cases or those that have complicated scientific evidence can cost substantially more. A case involving a life-without-parole sentence costs just 10 percent of the death penalty average, LSA found.

And according to the Tribune Star in Terre Haute, officials in Parke County actually sought an increase in the county income tax rate to pay for the prosecution of a man accused of killing his wife and daughters. Eventually, the defendant received a sentence of life without parole, saving the county significantly.

The state reimburses counties for part of the cost of death penalty cases.

But for many prosecutors and county officials, the price tag is still to high to make it worthwhile in all but the most egregious cases — especially with public support for executions fading.

Here are some earlier ILB entries on the cost of the death penalty:

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 27, 2012 09:27 AM
Posted to Indiana Law