EDITORIALS: Indiana's Death Penalty "Too Costly and Applied Unfairly"

In a recent editorial in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette, the paper welcomed the proposal by the state's Attorney General to reconsider the death penalty in light of its enormous costs.  At a Criminal Justice Summit held at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked state officials to look at the death penalty from a practical perspective. He cited a recent capital trial in Warrick County that cost $500,000 in defense attorney fees alone. “The costs can’t be borne by smaller counties," the paper quoted Zoeller as saying.   "[S]o if the crime occurs in a large county you might be charged with the death penalty, in a smaller county you’re not. That raises some significant questions about fairness.”  The paper noted that most of the high costs cannot be avoided: "[D]eath penalty cases demand the strictest set of protections and safeguards to make sure the conviction and sentence are correct and appropriate. New DNA evidence exonerating a killer can free a prisoner serving a life sentence; it can’t help someone who has been executed," and concluded, "The death penalty is too costly and applied too unfairly. Life without the possibility of parole is the appropriate penalty – and far less costly to taxpayers."  Read full editorial below.

Welcome death penalty discussion

Debate over the death penalty often centers on whether a civilized society should condone state-sanctioned killings. Last week, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked Hoosier officials to consider the issue by focusing on practicality rather than philosophy.

Chief among his concerns: Cost. Death penalty cases are costly, falling particularly hard on cash-strapped county governments. A recent death penalty case in Warrick County, for example, cost $500,000 in defense attorney fees.

Zoeller expressed his concerns at a Criminal Justice Summit at the University of Notre Dame. Attendees also heard from Anne Morrison Piehl, an economics professor at Rutgers University who studied the financial effect of death penalty cases on Indiana.

“The costs can’t be borne by smaller counties particularly, so if the crime occurs in a large county you might be charged with the death penalty, in a smaller county you’re not. That raises some significant questions about fairness,” The Elkhart Truth quoted Zoeller as saying.

Piehl said it is difficult to measure the exact cost, but death penalty cases typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the very same case involving a maximum penalty of life without parole.

And death penalty cases demand the strictest set of protections and safeguards to make sure the conviction and sentence are correct and appropriate. New DNA evidence exonerating a killer can free a prisoner serving a life sentence; it can’t help someone who has been executed.

Those safeguards – in the form of appeals and court review – are costly and take time.

Because those safeguards are necessary, they result in extended review by the courts – as they should, particularly when those reviews find mistakes that can require re-hearings and new trials. Consider the case of Joseph Corcoran, convicted in 1999 of four counts of murder. Questions over his mental health and the appropriateness of his guilty plea continue to reverberate in the court system 11 years later. Then there’s the case of Zolo Agona Azania, convicted of murder in 1982, whose case led to several appeals and rehearings until in 2008 – 26 years later – he was appropriately sentenced to life without parole.

These necessary delays have an additional cost, Zoeller noted. “The interminable delay prolongs the agony for the victim’s family, leaving them in perpetual limbo and sometimes preventing them from completing the grieving process,” Zoeller said.

Zoeller did not make a specific recommendation, and his remarks could lead to far different recommendations: End the death penalty or reduce costs and speed up executions. But reducing or eliminating safeguards to make executions faster and cheaper is unacceptable when the stakes are a person’s life.

The death penalty is too costly and applied too unfairly. Life without the possibility of parole is the appropriate penalty – and far less costly to taxpayers.

("Welcome death penalty discussion," (Ind.) Journal Gazette (editorial), November 21, 2010).  See Costs and Editorials.