ERNST PETERS/LEDGER FILE
PHOTO Tavares Wright testifies on
his own behalf during his trial in Bartow on Oct. 8. The legal
bill in Wright's case stands at $200,000, and a third murder
trial is pending. But the actual cost of his case is much
-- Life, as the old saying goes, is priceless. But death,
administered by lethal injection or in the electric chair, costs big
While law-and-order politicians and prosecutors have
argued for years that no price can be put on justice, shrinking
revenues are forcing states to re-examine whether the billions of
dollars spent annually on the death penalty is worthwhile.
a local level, prosecuting death-penalty cases can wreak havoc on
county budgets. A single death-penalty case can bankrupt a smaller
county, force county leaders to raise taxes, cut services or
Death-penalty cases impact larger counties, such as
Polk, less significantly. But with the county unable to continue
funding its indigent care program and struggling to pay for other
services, the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spends annually on
the death penalty can become significant.
Take the case of
Tavares Wright. The legal bill stands at $200,000 and a third murder
trial for the Lakeland man is pending after the first two ended in
The actual cost of Wright's case is considerably
more, however. Some costs, such as the extra time the judge,
prosecutor and other court officials have spent working on the case,
can't be calculated.
The last mistrial, declared in October
after jurors deadlocked, raised questions about whether continued
efforts to win a death sentence against Wright, who already is
serving multiple life sentences, would be money well
For prosecutors, the decision to seek death sentences
for Wright and his alleged accomplice, Sammy Pitts, was an easy one.
If ever anyone deserved to be executed for a crime, they do,
according to State Attorney Jerry Hill.
Wright and Pitts are
accused of carjacking David Lee Green, 21, and his 18-year-old
cousin, James Felker, from a Winn-Dixie parking lot on April 21,
2000, then executing them in an orange grove near Polk
Cost should be a factor in considering whether to seek
the death penalty in a given case, Hill said. But it's not high on
his list of considerations.
"It would be wrong to say that we
live and die by cost, and it would be wrong to say we ignore cost,"
Hill said. "(But) if it's a good death-penalty case, we're going to
try it" as one.
For an elected state attorney in Florida to
say anything else would be close to blasphemy. But some legal
experts say the economics of the death penalty, eventually, may
force even prosecutors to change their thinking.
think there's any question that the cost of the death penalty is
holding down sentences," said University of Colorado sociology
professor Michael Radelet, one of the country's foremost experts on
the death penalty. "In 10 years, the cost factor might be an issue
for bringing it to a standstill. . . . Prosecutors might eventually
say it's not worth the cost."
Across the country, with
virtually every state and county facing budgetary constraints,
critics are pushing the cost issue in arguing against the death
Even in states such as Texas, conservatives are
struggling to balance traditional law-and-order values with fiscal
responsibility when it comes to the death penalty.
prosecutors seek a sentence of death, as opposed to life without
parole, costs escalate exponentially.
A 1993 study by Duke
University's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy found that a
noncapital murder trial cost, on average, $55,000 less than a
deathpenalty trial that went all the way to sentencing.
Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission, in a report published last
year, found an even wider gap in costs.
The total average
cost of trying 28 death-penalty cases the Commission studied was
$272,796, including lawyer fees, jail costs, prosecutors' salaries
and security expenses. The average for the same costs in 19
non-capital cases studied was $72,218.
The difference in
costs between death-penalty and noncapital cases are not always so
A Ledger analysis of the 13 first-degree murder
cases closed in 2002 and in the first six months of this year in
Polk County found that the four death-penalty cases cost, on
average, 15.4 percent more than the nine noncapital cases. (See
Several factors accounted for lower costs in many of
the cases in both categories.
All of the death-penalty cases
ended in plea bargains, eliminating trial costs. And the Public
Defender's Office represented six of the defendants, while one hired
his own lawyer, saving thousands of dollars in lawyer
The 13 cases studied do not reflect the true difference
in cost between most death-penalty cases and ones in which the death
penalty is not sought. But they do show that, even in the most
cost-effective of circumstances, the death penalty increases costs
Prosecutors were unable to win a death
sentence in any of the death-penalty cases studied. The last person
sent to Florida's death row from Polk County was Micah Nelson,
sentenced March 17, 2000.
Legal experts say
higher costs are inevitable in death-penalty cases, which,
essentially, involve two trials: a guilt phase and a penalty
Having two trials means added costs. In a
death-penalty case, the defense team increases from one to two
lawyers, who often hire an investigator. Most murder defendants are
indigent and are defended either by the Public Defender's Office or
by private lawyers paid by the county.
trials are longer than non-capital trials. Picking a jury capable of
recommending a death sentence takes longer, too. Sequestering the
jury and providing increased security adds to costs.
death-penalty cases, more experts are needed to evaluate defendants
and to testify at trial. The county pays their fees and travel
expenses. If a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder, travel
bills can add up for friends and family called as witnesses to argue
against a death sentence.
The state of Florida pays fixed
court expenses, such as jury costs and salaries for judges,
prosecutors and public defenders. County governments pay for
indigent defendants' private lawyers when there's a conflict with
the Public Defender's Office, expert witnesses, bailiffs, travel,
transcripts and other costs.
That funding structure is set to
change next year.
A constitutional amendment, approved by
voters in 1998, will shift responsibility for funding the courts to
the state. But state leaders have yet to work out the plan's
details, and legal experts are unsure how the change will impact
costs in murder cases.
For now, however, counties continue to
shoulder much of the cost associated with prosecuting death-penalty
While the added expenses of a
death-penalty trial rarely register in a bigger county, such as
Polk, the costs can be significant for a county the size of
"I think the justice of each situation
has to rest on the merits of each case," said Public Defender Marion
Moorman, who serves Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. "But in a
small, rural county, a significant case could end up bankrupting a
In Jasper County, Texas, the cost of
convicting and seeking the death penalty against three men accused
of killing James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death in 1998, forced
a 6.7 percent increase in property taxes over two years to pay for
the trial. Costs exceeded $1 million in a county with a $10 million
During the early 1990s, the trials that
followed the murders of an English tourist and a Florida Highway
Patrol trooper in the small North Florida town of Monticello put
Jefferson County deep in debt. The high costs of the trials forced
cuts elsewhere in the county budget, such as a freeze on employee
raises and a 20 percent reduction in the library budget.
several states, escalating costs in murder cases have spurred cost
analyses and legislation aimed at helping counties pay for expensive
Some states, such as Georgia and Texas, have set
aside money to help counties pay for prosecuting death-penalty
cases. In Florida, which has no such fund, the Legislature has made
special appropriations to cash-strapped counties, such as Jefferson,
to help pay for expensive death-penalty cases. But such help is
"For the most part, counties have just sucked it up and
found a way to pay for" death-penalty cases, said Vivian Zaricki of
the Florida Association of Counties.
Despite the billions of
dollars spent on death-penalty trials, appeals and housing death row
inmates, the number of executions across the country has dwindled
Many of the 363 people on Florida's death row
are likely to die in prison before being put to
According to the state Department of Corrections,
Florida has executed 57 people since reinstating the death penalty
in 1976. The state has executed only three people in each of the
past two years and has executed more than four people only twice
since 1976 -- eight in 1984 and six in 2000.
first modernday execution in 1979, the state has executed three
people from Polk County.
"In Florida, the number of death
sentences has been dropping like a rock," Colorado professor
Radelet, a death penalty opponent, said. "The death penalty in
Florida has become somewhat of a myth."
opponents argue that support for capital punishment would erode
quickly if people realized how expensive it is and that it heaps
substantial costs on local governments.
"We are pouring a lot
of money down the drain, and I think more people would want to spend
that money on education and prevention -- things that would prevent
violence," said Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for
Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Supporters of the death
penalty "don't want to talk about (the cost) issue because the death
penalty serves as an emotional hot-button issue that politicians
use," Bonowitz said. "(But) sooner or later, we're going to have to
face up to it."
After Wright's last
mistrial in October, his lawyers questioned why the State Attorney's
Office had never discussed a possible plea bargain. The defense
lawyers have since acknowledged preliminary plea negotiations, which
prosecutors have declined to discuss.
Ivy Scriven -- the
mother of Green, one of the men Wright is accused of killing -- said
she no longer cares whether Wright and Pitts are executed. She just
wants them brought to justice.
"I don't care if they rot,"
she said. "I don't care if they get lethal injection. Just so long
as neither one of them smells the air outside those cells
But victims and their family members can exert
considerable pressure on prosecutors, especially in high-profile
murder cases. Some pressure prosecutors into seeking the death
penalty in cases where it isn't warranted, defense lawyers
Hill said prosecutors shouldn't seek a death sentence
in response to public pressure or shy away from one because of cost,
"I don't think this office tries to make a case a
death penalty case," Hill said. "If it's not, it's not. We're not
looking for statistics, nor are we looking for
Critics, including Radelet, see Hill's office as
too eager to seek the death penalty -- a contention Hill denies and
that is not supported by a Ledger analysis of State Attorneys'
Offices across the state.
The Ledger surveyed all 20 of
Florida's State Attorneys' Offices. Sixteen provided numbers of
pending first-degree murder cases and how many of those are
The survey found that Hill's office was
seeking the death penalty in 14, or 40 percent, of 35 pending
first-degree murder cases. That compares to a 46 percent average
among the 16 prosecutors' offices that submitted data.
defense lawyer Larry Shearer said Hill's office, today, seems to
seek the death penalty less frequently than it did when he first
started trying cases here in the 1980s.
In part, that's
because an expanded body of appellate court decisions has limited
the number of cases in which prosecutors can seek the death
Despite such expanded case law, however, the
complexity of the issues surrounding the death penalty means that
developing any sort of universal standard is unlikely, Shearer
"It's impossible to avoid being arbitrary because there
are so many factors," he said.
Jeff Scullin can be reached at
jeff.scullin@theledger or 863-533-9079.