Death penalty convictions are way down in the United States and the bad economy appears to be one of the reasons. Studies show it costs on average 2-3 times more for a death penalty case than a comparable murder case where the state is seeking life in prison without parole.
“It is a big deal for county budgets,” says King County (Wash.) Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, “when a death penalty case comes up cost is a factor that everyone is considering.”
Satterberg currently is prosecuting two death penalty cases, one involving the murders of six members of a family and the other a murder of a Seattle police officer. Neither case has gone to trial, yet the cost of defending them has hit $4.3 million and keeps going up. Because all three defendants are indigent, that cost is born by taxpayers. Budget shortfalls have forced Satterberg to cut his department by 51 employees including 36 deputy prosecutors.
Nationwide, death penalty sentences have dropped 60 percent since 2000 from 224 to 112 last year. Experts say there are several factors including more skeptical juries, better defense teams and fewer death sentences being sought by district attorneys.
Satterberg blames what he calls the death penalty "industry."
“They want to drive up the cost,” Satterberg says, “They want to delay the cases forever, only to turn around and use those arguments why we should get rid of the death penalty.”
In recent years, defense attorneys have increasingly used mitigation specialists who conduct lengthy investigations into the defendant’s past looking for abuse, mental illness or any other reason that might explain the murderer's behavior.
“They're given a blank check,” says Satterberg.
Death penalty defense attorneys object.
"These cases are extraordinarily difficult to prosecute and defend," says attorney Michael Iaria. “They cost an extraordinary amount of money to do right.”
According to California Taxpayers for Justice, which is pushing a referendum to abolish the death penalty in the state, California has spent $4 billion on capital punishment cases resulting in 13 executions.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who famously tried O.J. Simpson in a death penalty eligible case, now says it’s not worth it.
“We should take that $4 billion and give it to teachers, keep the kids in school,” Garcetti says, “That’s the way to really protect society.”
Polls have consistently shown about two-thirds of the public support the death penalty. Victims rights groups say prosecutors need to follow the law even if it’s going to cost more.
Sara Van Wyk has changed from being opposed to the death penalty to a strong supporter. In 2007, six members of her family including her sister Erica Anderson were murdered in Carnation, Wash. The accused murderers confessed and one even asked that she be put to death. Yet, nearly 4 years later the case still has not gone to trial. The defense bill to date is $3.2 million.
“When you lose a loved one so quickly and tragically without any warning” says Van Wyk. "There’s no way to factor the cost.”
Prosecuting Attorney Satterberg is seeking the death penalty in the Carnation case and says he’s lucky he has not received pressure from elected officials to avoid the added costs. It's the smaller counties where a single death penalty case can practically drain the general fund.
Satterberg and others have called for a cap of $1 million on the cost of defending death penalty cases. Criminal defense attorneys argue it would lead to more death sentences being overturned due to quality of representation.
“If you start putting financial caps on the cost of defense,” Michael Iaria says. “Then you are prejudging what is necessary in any given case, and you just can’t do that.”