Thursday, November 18, 2010

$185,000 and Counting

Really, it shouldn't come as a surprise.
What?  Oh, sorry.
Cost of suspected serial killer Anthony Sowell's defense surpasses $185,000 mark
That's the headline from a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Sowell, of course, is alleged to have killed a whole bunch of people and cluttered his house and property with the bodies.  (You can catch up some on the case here.)  But Cuyahoga County isn't facing those bills just because the body count is high and the case has kept the media hounds busy.  Hell, my guess (and it's only a guess, folks; I have no inside information) is that if County Prosecutor Bill Mason would say now - or would have said 150 thousand dollars ago -
Plead guilty to aggravated murder, agree to a sentence of death in prison, and we'll give up on the death penalty
Sowell would have taken the deal in a heartbeat.  My guess (still no inside info) is that he'd take the deal today.
It's one of the not-so-secrets about the death penalty that it costs a ton of money.   We can't just kill people.  First we have to be sure they're guilty.  (We're not terribly good at that, of course; see, e.g., Todd Willingham or Claude Jones down in Texas, or Joe D'Ambrosio here in Ohio; there's no shortage of other examples.)
And not just guilty of something like aggravated murder with at least one death specification.  Actually guilty of that.  That requires a full investigation complete with investigators and forensic examiners and maybe psychologists or who knows what for the defense because we don't have a system where whatever the government (or Nancy Grace) alleges must be accepted as true.
And then we have to decide that life or death question.  And the Constitution and the law of Ohio and fundamental human decency says that it isn't just whether the now-convicted person did something awful but whether the awfulness outweighs who that person is and was and how it all came to be.  Because the death penalty isn't just (we're talking theory here, but it's the theory of American justice so if you don't like it consider which other country's system you'd prefer) for the worst of the worst crimes but for the worst of the worst crimes when they're committed by the worst of the worst people.
And that means more investigation and more evaluation and more expert assistance because we want to be sure that this particular person, that one, sitting there, in the courtroom, the one the judge and the jury are looking at, him:  We want to be sure he's the one that judge and jury can look at and say
You should die and we are so damn sure of it that we're willing, individually, to be responsible for killing you.
Once more, the record shows that we're wholly incapable of making those decisions in any sort of reasonable or reliable or consistent way, but the point is that we're supposed to.  And that can't be done in a vacuum.  It really does require that we invest in getting it right.
Or, you know, we can just give this whole charade up.  Just do a trial.  Save a fortune.  Avoid the moral morass and legal quagmire of the death penalty.
In Indiana they've been talking about that. Indiana has a death penalty (though a comparatively small death row), and has killed twenty people, so they're serious about it over there.  And it's not up for immediate elimination.  An AP report explains.
Indiana state lawmakers say the General Assembly is more likely to try to find ways to help counties pay for death penalty cases than to abolish executions to save money.

"There aren't a majority of votes in the Indiana legislature to impose either a moratorium or a revocation of the death penalty, so that's not going to happen," state Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, a Judiciary Committee member, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. 
But there's that money thing.
An analysis conducted earlier this year by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency found that the average cost for trial and direct appeal in six capital cases averaged $449,887, not including the costs incurred by prosecutors or sheriffs. That compares with an average cost of $42,658 for seven trials in cases involving sentences of life without parole.  
That's more than 10 times the cost.  And money's tight these days.  Sen. Broden got the point.
"In an era of declining revenues, we either need to come up with a way to fund future death penalty cases or take a look at other options. I guess everything is on the table right now," he said. 
The comments were in response to an assertion earlier in the week by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller that lawmakers should look at whether the costs of death penalty cases are justifiable in tough economic times.
What's true in Indiana is true in Ohio.  And it's sure true in Cuyahoga County.
That $185,000 bill.  It'll be way higher before all is said and done.  Though they could pretty much cut it off right now if Bill Mason would just offer that deal.
So maybe we should try listening to some of those prosecutors across the border to our west.  That AP report quotes a couple of them from a summit at Notre Dame University where all this was discussed.
The Elkhart Truth reported that Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco said at the summit where Zoeller spoke on Monday that he believes Indiana's death penalty system is "nearly broken" because it costs so much.

"It's almost at the point where it's no longer viable. Unless we decrease the costs, it's not worth it," he said.

The newspaper reported that Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart said the system is broken because it costs too much.

"Prosecutors are scared to death about filing a death-penalty case and risking bankrupting their office budget and bankrupting their county budget," Stewart said. 
Note, if you would, the name of the newspaper where those statements were quoted.  It's the Elkhart Truth.
It's Ohio's truth, too.
We can give it up.  And save a ton of money. 
Maybe for crime prevention - or relief for families of those who are killed.


  1. Nice point. The trouble is that we the people are not consulted on cases like this. Consider both ends of the death penalty opinion spectrum. On one end sit Bubba, Sissy and Joe, none of whom can imagine spending $185 grand on anything, much less a trial for a whacked out serial killer. Their opinion consists of two thoughts:

    "$185 grand?! Hell no I wouldn't spend it! Just take that crazy sumbitch out back and shoot him. Cost you fifty cents. Shit, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I know guys who'd actually pay five dollars to do it."

    When you try to explain why it can't work that way, you'll get no where. In frustration you'll get the second part of their opinion.

    "Just 'splain to me why we can't (caint?) take the crazy summbitch out back and shoot him. You know damn good and well it's 'cause of those bleedin' heart gun grabbin' commie fagot lib-rals!"

    Which will take you back to part one, taking the accused out back and shooting him. The thing is that in a case like this their idiotic argument begins to sound reasonable, especially when you consider the cost of an execution for someone who is much more than very likely a deranged serial killer.

    Then at the other end of the bell curve are the overly zealous opponents of the death penalty, whose arguments are generally based on all life being sacred, cruel and unusual punishment and the inherent wrongness of 'an eye for an eye', which actually means that if someone steals $100 from my dear old mother I'm not allowed to burn their house down, kill their family and then go out there in the middle of the night and piss on the ashes.

    Sorry, I got carried away for a minute.

    None of these people are willing to spend $185 grand on the trial either. They consider it a waste of money that could otherwise be spent on public works, such as teaching people to read.

    The one thing that these two groups can agree on is that it's just plain nuts to spend this much money on a trial that seems pretty open and shut to me. How much guiltier can this man be? Come on!

    So establish some dollar amount as the maximum, say $5000 or so. If the projected expenditures exceed this amount, the death penalty gets taken off the table and replaced with life in prison without possibility of parole. If this sounds a little too sensible to work, put it in front of the voting public and see what shakes out. I'll bet you'd be surprised.

  2. Actually, it's a lot more than that. Nobody's bothered to run the numbers, but the state has probably spent over a million prosecuting - which makes the defense pikers.

  3. This is transparently silly math. If the death penalty were taken completely off the table, then Anthony Sowell (and others like him) wouldn't simply plead guilty and accept life in prison. Presumably, Sowell others would then insist on another concession. (And any sane lawyer would encourage him in that.)

    That means that, from a cost savings point of view (which, of course, should not be the main point in criminal justice) you have to have a robust possibility of the death penalty in order to extract the cost savings you're talking about.

    Furthermore, you don't account for the perhaps substantial cost savings that the system already procures by convincing clearly guilty people to plead to a non-capital offense in order to avoid the death penalty. Once again, this doesn't necessarily justify the death penalty. (There are lots of reasons we might want to take the death penalty away as a threat, so as not to convince innocent people to plead guilty.) It just goes to show that your arguments are of the say-anything-against-the-death-penalty variety, rather than reasoned thinking.

  4. It may be transparently silly, but it's empirically right.

    But in fact not. The savings in Sowell's case would come from offering him a plea to life. And yes, the death penalty encourages life pleas - which leaves us with the awkward situation where if the defendant turns down a life plea the state ends up arguing to a jury that a guy they don't actually think needs to be killed or maybe even shouldn't be killed has to be killed.

    But if the subject is pure cash (and maybe that shouldn't drive issues of criminal justice but in the real world cost is always a consideration), then the empirical evidence is that abolition will do it. In states that don't have the death penalty, you do not see the resources - by either state and defense - put into prosecutions over LWOP cases that are put into capital cases elsewhere. And it's not just the choice of states. The experience of the few states that have abolished death in the last few years (NY, NJ, & NM) mirror that. They're simply not spending the money on LWOP prosecutions that they did on death ones. The defense isn't (that's the $185 K in Sowell's case) nor is the state )which is almost surely over 1 million in his case). And while his numbers are atypically high, the point is the same with regard to the typical capital case.

    But if non-capital cases cost less - and less to plead out, too, and most do plead out - then there's a saving.

    But the other point, the larger one, is that in our society, we don't (and given our system which you can like or not, we shouldn't) get death on the cheap. You may or may not care. But lots of folks do.