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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 higher.
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Published Sunday, December 14, 2003

Death Penalty: Is Price Of Justice Too High?

States wonder if the extreme punishment is worth the cost.

jeff.scullin@theledger.com

BARTOW -- Life, as the old saying goes, is priceless. But death, administered by lethal injection or in the electric chair, costs big bucks.

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.

On 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 both.

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 mistrials.

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 spent.

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 City.

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.

"I don't 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 penalty.

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.

Anytime 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.

The 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 significant.

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 chart)

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 fees.

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 significantly.

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.

TWO TRIALS

Legal experts say higher costs are inevitable in death-penalty cases, which, essentially, involve two trials: a guilt phase and a penalty phase.

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.

Most death-penalty 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.

In 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 cases.

BUDGET BUSTER

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 neighboring Hardee.

"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 county's budget."

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 annual budget.

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.

In several states, escalating costs in murder cases have spurred cost analyses and legislation aimed at helping counties pay for expensive trials.

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 rare.

"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 significantly.

Many of the 363 people on Florida's death row are likely to die in prison before being put to death.

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.

Since Florida's 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."

Death penalty 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."

PLEA URGED

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 again."

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 argue.

Hill said prosecutors shouldn't seek a death sentence in response to public pressure or shy away from one because of cost, he said.

"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 headlines."

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 death-penalty cases.

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.

Polk 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 penalty.

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 said.

"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.


Last modified: December 14. 2003 8:22AM
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