Death Penalty Foes, Backing New Bill, Say Capital Cases Waste Money

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As Ellis Conklin reported yesterday, a new effort to abolish the death penalty is underway in the legislature. The debate over the ultimate punishment has been going on for decades, but it's not just about morality any more. Like so many things, it's also about the economy.

Driving to an Olympia press conference yesterday on the bill sponsored by Senator Debbie Regala, criminal defense attorney Mark Larranga spoke to SW about the state budget: "If you're looking for places to trim the fat, the death penalty is the perfect example."

His argument, derived in part from two studies he has has worked on (one for a group that advises lawyers working on capital cases, and another for the Washington State Bar Association) is strictly monetary. Since the death penalty was reenacted in this state in 1981, it has cost the state "millions and millions of dollars," Larranga says.

Precisely how much is hard to track down, partly because allocations come from different levels of government. But Larranga points to the recent trial of convicted Kirkland quadruple murderer Conner Schierman. Taking into account prosecution and public defense costs, he says the trial cost $2.5 million--and that's not including the cost of appeals.

And yet, for all the money spent, Larranga says the "process has failed" on its own terms. In 30 years, just five people have been executed.

Many more have been sentenced to death--32 to be precise--but 17 of those sentences have been reversed on appeal and others have appeals pending.

Regala, too, makes an economic argument. She tells SW she knows the pain of losing someone to murder, in her case a a brother-in-law, a fact she is just now beginning to talk about. She says she understands wanting to ensure that killers never walk the streets again. But she says the state can "accomplish the same goal" a lot more cheaply by putting people in prison for life with the possibility of parole.

Such thinking is being heard more and more nationally. In an essay for Columbia Law School a few years back, law professor Jeffrey Fagan writes that states need to do some serious cost-benefit analysis.

Even in states where prosecutors infrequently seek the death penalty, the price of obtaining convictions and executions ranges from $2.5 million to $5 million per case (in current dollars), compared to less than $1 million for each killer sentenced to life without parole. These costs create clear public policy choices. If the state is going to spend $5 million on law enforcement over the next few decades, what is the best use of that money? Is it to buy two or three executions or, for example, to fund additional police detectives, prosecutors, and judges to arrest and incarcerate criminals who escape punishment because of insufficient law-enforcement resources?

Or perhaps, Larranga speculates, the state might decide to funnel the money spent on death penalty cases into an entirely different arena--education, for example. He refers to the state Supreme Court ruling just this month finding that the state has neglected its constitutional duty to fund education sufficiently.

Regala, speaking after the press conference and later committee hearing, admits she doesn't know whether her colleagues will buy the monetary argument. A similar bill failed last year, and the economy was no better then. But she notes that, nationally, the thinking is changing. In the past few years, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois have rescinded the death penalty. And just last November, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber enacted a moratorium on executions.

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