In California, the death penalty is still “on the books”. On July 16th, 2014 a U.S. District Court ruled that California’s death penalty statute violated the 8th amendment and was unconstitutional. However, on November 12th, 2015 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, re-instating the death penalty. The last death penalty related execution in California was in 2006. Studies have shown that California would save around 183 million dollars per year if they did not have the death penalty “on the books”. 183 million dollars a year, just to have a law “on the books”?  That would be 1.8 billion dollars over 10 years since the last execution, and it keeps counting. If we are not executing people anymore, then why have this law “on the books”? California Proposition 62, which is on the November 2016 ballot, seeks to abolish the death penalty. If it passes, that could save Californians around 183 million dollars per year. Is having the death penalty “on the books” really worth it? Our infographic below explains this phenomenon in further detail.

Death Penalty Infographic Keep

Why is the Death Penalty so Expensive?

The main reason the death penalty is a more expensive form of punishment than say life in prison is because of the legal complexities associated with sentencing someone to death. The road to the death penalty is a long one, and it’s one that uses premium gas during the trip. Some might argue that the American justice system should do away with these complicated legal procedures and just execute defendants shortly after sentencing. However, there is an important policy behind the windy road to execution – to keep innocent people from death. Those who support the policy know that juries are not infallible. They argue the bar to take someone’s life should necessarily be a high one. If a mistake was made presenting evidence by the prosecutor, if a witness lied on the stand, or important facts come to light post-verdict, those factors should exonerate someone from execution and they should be afforded the time to do so. Even people who are the most pro-death penalty supporters would agree that someone who is wrongfully convicted should not be sentenced to death. When thinking about the death penalty one needs to consider the entire process. The cost before trial, during trial, and after trial. The cost to house an inmate during the time, the cost of appeals and lastly the cost of the actual death penalty methods used.

Death Penalty Cost Before Trial

First, most of the cost of sentencing someone to death comes from the pre-trial phase. Death penalty cases are painfully multifaceted, complex, and require immaculate and exhaustive planning by both the prosecution and the defense. The crime charged usually involves brutal murders. The state has a heavy burden of making the case of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors must investigate witnesses, examine evidence, gather experts to study the evidence and evaluate their opinions. They must interview witnesses or other people who may know anything about the crime, the victim, or the defendant. They must weave together small pieces of evidence into an intricate explanation of what they believe happened. They must battle with the defense over each piece of evidence and whether or not it can be used in court during trial. They must serve reciprocal discovery – that is, tell the defense attorney all the evidence that the prosecution has discovered. There are status hearings, motions, in limine hearings, and numerous other arguments made in front of a judge. Needless to say, the process is exhausting. In Death Penalty cases, every detail is even more important because:
• Both sides know that someone’s life is on the line 
• Both sides know that the case will be examined on appeal

During the pre-trial phase, the prosecutor is unlikely to have the time to work on other cases, and on death penalty cases usually a team of prosecutors are assigned to one case because of the case’s complexity, so the state is paying a team of prosecutors to handle the case. Those defending the person charged are the majority of the time, public defenders, which are also paid by the state. In Federal Death Penalty cases, a 2010 report, which was an update to the Spencer Report noted that: in Federal Death Penalty cases, public defenders spent eight times the amount of money on a death penalty case than a non-death one. Much like the prosecutors, they would also have a team of attorneys working on the case.

Meanwhile, while the pre-trial preparation is unfolding over the course of one or two years, sometimes longer, the defendant is sitting in jail.

Cost of Housing a Death Row Inmate

The cost to house and care for an inmate is exorbitant. Costs have been calculated from around $25,000 in average states up to $60,076 per person in the state of New York, per year.

Lets take California for example. In 2010, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that the average annual cost per inmate was $47,431. Again, this is is before the defendant is sentenced to the death penalty. The Average time on death row is around 15 – 20 years.

The cost of housing and caring for the defendant is even higher because they are placed on death row, a colloquial name for administrative segregation where inmates are placed in solitary confinement and require heightened security. The cost of a death row inmate rings in at a whopping $90,000 more a year than a general population inmate. At $130,000 ($40,000 plus $90,000 additional) a year, for 25 years, that could mean 3.25 million dollars before an individual is executed.

David Murtishaw is a good example to highlight some of the costs of housing an inmate on death row. David Murtishaw was on death row for 32 years when he died of a heart attack on November 22nd, 2011. The cost of his case was 6.8 million dollars more than if he would have gotten life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Murtishaw died before he received the death penalty.

Cost of the Trial Phase of a Death Penalty Case

The trial phase is almost as cost-consuming as the pre-trial phase. This includes more motions during trial being made by both sides in front of the judge. Concerned attorneys focus on finding and picking the perfect jury, a process that is intricate and takes a great deal of time to complete. Jury duty notices have to be sent out to members of the public, and often the county pays them for their participation. The potential jury members must sit through a long and arduous process of being interviewed, questioned, and examined by counsel. In some high profile cases such as the OJ Simpson murder trial (note: this was not a death penalty case) and the Timothy McVeigh trial (note: this was a death penalty case), the jury selection process took from a week to over ten days, respectively.

Once a jury is seated, trial officially begins. The elaborate dance the prosecution and defense perform during trial questioning witnesses and experts, then cross-examining and re-directing them takes an excessive amount of time. OJ Simpson’s trial lasted 135 days and he was not being sentenced to death. In comparison, the average death sentence case can take anywhere from 9 months up to 41 months to finish. The costs for a prolonged trial period can run into the millions and include: a judge’s salary, jury, prosecutor, oftentimes a public defender, security for the court, transportation of the defendant to and from jail to court, and the list goes on and on.

If the jury brings back a guilty verdict, death penalty cases have a separate sentencing phase, which is distinguished from non-death penalty cases. In non-death penalty cases, only the judge decides sentencing based on a series of recommendations and/or sentencing guidelines. However, in a death penalty case, the jury, and not the judge, often decide whether or not the defendant ought to be sentenced to death.

Essentially, this is another mini-trial where the defense attempts to mitigate the reasons the defendant should die and plead to the jury the reasons the defendant deserves to live. This phase can last at a minimum several weeks, and often lasts longer, thus increasing the court and jail costs.

Post-Trial Cost of the Death Penalty

Post-trial and post-sentencing, the defendant has now been sentenced to death. This begins another long and costly road. The defendant now has a series of constitutional rights to appeal his sentence, often requiring expert appellate attorneys to write lengthy briefs at great cost, and specific appellate judges to rule on them, also at great cost. These include different types of appeals, to different courts, often over different reasons. Due to the inherent complexity of appeals, the process is notoriously long, and consumes the largest amount of time between an arrest being made and the death penalty being carried out. In 2010, the average time between being sentenced to death and being executed was 15 years, largely due in part to the appellate process. For those 15 years, as mentioned above, the state would be paying an additional $90,000 more per inmate to keep them on death row. In California, average estimates are that the state spends around 72 million dollars on the death penalty per year just handling appeals costs.

Cost of Death Penalty Methods

Even the last item on the checklist of executing a person sentenced to death is very costly Lethal injection is the go-to form of execution by the states still allowing the death penalty. However, in the past couple of years the drugs needed to lawfully carry out lethal injection have been hard to come by. This is because the pharmacies who once produced the necessary chemicals have stopped doing so, ironically, because it is bad for business. And as every capitalist knows, when the supply dips, the price rises: from $83 a vial to $1,500 a vial, a 1700% increase in cost. Projections are that these prices are going to go up even higher in the near future and have even less of a supply. The European Union have even banned the export of the lethal injection “cocktail” when they know it will be used for the purposes of death.

Overall, the cost to Americans for maintaining the option of killing someone for their crimes versus imprisoning them for life is astonishing. Conservative estimates, including all the phases and costs mentioned here, brings the average estimate to seeking the death penalty in the US at around $160 million per year. In California for example, not having the death penalty would save taxpayers around $183 million per year. Everyone has their own opinion on the death penalty and everyone has a right to voice why they believe it should exist or not. Whether you are pro death penalty or against it, one thing is for sure. It is a very costly process.

Death Penalty Cost in California

Los Angeles California prosecutors Nicholas Peterson and Mona Lynch decided to look into the actual cost of the death penalty in California and complied a study to display their findings. When the two looked into the cost between 1996 and 2006 they found that the death penalty cases averaged 1.2 million dollars more per case than life without parole cases. Every time they made the decision to prosecute a case as a death penalty case (instead of a life without parole case), it costed tax payers over 1 million dollars.

Is the Death Penalty Just to expensive?

Overall, the cost to Americans for maintaining the option of killing someone for their crimes versus imprisoning them for life is astonishing. Conservative estimates, including all the phases and costs mentioned here, brings the average estimate to seeking the death penalty in the US at around $160 million per year. In California for example, not having the death penalty would save taxpayers around $183 million per year. Everyone has their own opinion on the death penalty and everyone has a right to voice why they believe it should exist or not. Whether you are pro death penalty or against it, one thing is for sure. It is a very costly process.

Ozols Law Firm
Criminal Defense Lawyers
8880 Rio San Diego #22
San Diego, CA,
92108
619 288 8357