Death penalty cases more expensive than lifetime imprisonment, but local
CDA says cost never a consideration
Legal experts and trial attorneys agree that most people outside the legal
community don't realize the high cost of the death penalty.
This fall, Gray County spent nearly $1 million seeking the death penalty
against Levi King, who pleaded guilty to slaying a pregnant woman, her
husband and her son.
Lubbock County spent more than $200,000 on its last death penalty case
trying Rosendo Rodriguez III in 2008.
These costs do not include the cost of appeals, which can more than double
the cost in capital cases, according to capital case experts.
A non-death penalty murder case typically costs Lubbock County about
$3,000, court officials estimate.
"I'd say generally if you went down to the corner and asked 10 people at
random, my guess is 9 out of 10 of them would say 'No, life in prison is
more expensive,'" said Steve Hall, director of the StandDown Texas
Project, a criminal justice watchdog organization.
Polls show the majority of Americans support the death penalty for
convicted murderers. And Lubbock County's top prosecutor said he never
considers cost when deciding whether to pursue the death penalty.
Hall said people who have not paid much attention to indigent criminal
justice are often surprised to hear that capital litigation is typically
more expensive than 40 years of lifetime incarceration.
The average cost to house an inmate in Texas prisons is $47.50 per day,
said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal
That means it costs more than $17,000 to house an inmate for a year and
$693,500 for 40 years.
From indictment to execution, the trial costs alone for a death penalty
case are estimated at about $1.2 million, said Jack Stoffregen, who runs
the West Texas Regional Public Defenders Office for Capital Cases.
It is impossible to say death penalty cases across the board are more
expensive than non-death penalty cases, but the capital punishment system
as a whole is far more costly than its non-lethal counterpart, said Rob
Owen, co-director of the University of Texas Law Schools Capital
The cost of state-sanctioned killing includes the cost of the trial, the
appeals, establishing, staffing and operating a separate housing facility
in conjunction with the states maximum security level and, finally, the
execution, Owen said.
"The system is the problem that costs a bunch of money," Owen said. "That
as a whole is way more expensive than just deciding that life imprisonment
will be your maximum punishment and sending everybody convicted of capital
murder off to life in prison."
Lubbock County prosecutors were scheduled to seek the death penalty
against Alonzo Lewis this fall, but Lewis pleaded guilty in exchange for
life in prison without possibility of parole.
Lubbock County has not sent a killer to death row since 2008, but has
sentenced 18 people to death since capital punishment was reinstituted in
Texas has already executed 24 people this year, and a Gallup poll released
in October shows 65 % of Americans support the death penalty for convicted
31 % oppose it, according to the poll.
People often blame the lengthy appeals process for the expense, but
experts agree that the cost of the initial trial itself is also much
higher in capital cases.
"The moment a district attorney says he or she is going to seek the death
penalty, there's an increased burden on the system," Hall said.
The judge is legally bound to appoint a 2nd attorney to assist in the
The defense attorneys must seek and hire expert witnesses and other
experts such as investigators and specialists to look into the social
background of the defendant to see if there is anything in his or her past
that reduces the defendant's apparent.
If the defense attorneys do not spend the money to hire adequate experts
in the initial trial, Hall said it is far more likely the case will be
sent back to the trial court on appeal.
"In that case you end up having to re-litigate that case," Hall said.
"You're paying for it once and then 5, 8, 10 years later, you're paying
for it again."
In death penalty cases, the appeals process is automatic.
A judge must appoint attorneys for both a direct appeal and state writ of
The direct appeal is limited to what occurred during the trial itself.
Arguments are limited to the transcript of the court record, which must be
produced by the court reporter and printed at a cost of several thousand
The state writ allows the attorney the freedom to argue outside the record
and re-investigate the case from scratch in an effort to prove the
government doesn't have the authority to hold the defendant because his
constitutional rights were violated.
Once all state remedies have been exhausted, the attorney will ask a U.S.
district judge to appoint another attorney to handle a federal writ. This
attorney will basically try to prove the defendants confinement is
unconstitutional under federal law.
This process can take several years, but a convicted murderer sits on
Texas Death Row an average of about 10 years, according to statistics from
the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
And retrials can cost even more than the initial trial, Stoffregen said.
But if the state is going to utilize a punishment that is irreparable, it
must make every effort to make sure the person condemned to die is in fact
guilty, Stoffregen said.
"If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it right," he said.
Stoffregen's office recently handled a case of a man convicted of capital
murder in 1991 in Randall County.
An appeals court returned the case to Randall County for a new punishment
Stoffregen, whose office provides death penalty defense for counties that
pay into the cost-savings program, presented Randall County Commissioners
with how much the retrial would have cost if they were not members of the
The cost for the trial team alone which comprises 2 attorneys, an
investigator and a mitigator was $250,000.
That does not include the cost of experts, security and court personnel
during the 5-week trial, Stoffregen said.
Seeking death in this instance was certain to cost more money than a life
"Actually this case wouldn't have been retried at all, because if the
state was going to waive death, he would have been sentenced to life
automatically," Stoffregen said.
If not sentenced to death a 2nd time, parole laws at the time of the 1990
crime which applied in the retrial could have made the defendant
eligible for release as soon as the judgment was entered, because he had
already served the minimum 15 years needed for eligibility.
Defendants convicted of capital murder under current law receive life
without the possibility of parole if they are not sentenced to death.
But some people are beyond rehabilitation and will put prison staff,
counselors and doctors at risk if not executed, Lubbock County Criminal
District Attorney Matt Powell said.
That is why Powell said he never takes cost into account when deciding
whether to seek the death penalty.
"I don't dispute that it's more expensive," he said. He went on to say the
high cost is not a valid argument against the death penalty.
"The people who say that's a viable argument, please look at a mother in
the eye who has lost a son and say 'you know what, I could have stopped
him and I didn't because it costs too much,'" Powell said.
(source: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)