The costs to taxpayers of death penalty cases that stretch on for decades easily have reached into the billions nationally and the millions on the state level, experts say.
On the one hand, death row inmates and their public defenders file flurries of appeals in what seems like everlasting attempts to avoid being put to death.
On the other, the prosecution pushes for such sentences to be upheld, racking up astronomical costs as they fight the appeals filed for myriad reasons ranging from religious beliefs, the origin of the drugs used to kill them and whether their legal representation was sufficient.
As 20 of the 127 prison inmates on Arizona’s death row have been awaiting their executions for 20 years or longer — one has been there for 31 years — death penalty experts say the overall specific costs to taxpayers is something they’ll likely never know until years after death penalty cases are concluded.
One reason is the laws that protect attorney-client privilege while such cases are ongoing.
Another is that federal agencies don’t reveal the amount of taxpayer dollars they spend supporting inmates who have committed violent or heinous crimes.
During the appeals, families of murder victims continue to go through an emotional roller-coaster ride as they await justice to run its course, and in some cases do not live to see the outcome of a death penalty case due to the length of time it can take to come to fruition.
On top of those legal costs to taxpayers, there’s the cost to physically house death row inmates — which today is nearly $90 per day. For the 20 inmates who have been on death row 20 years or longer, that computes to more than $10 million.
“As a society we need to look at the costs involved,” said Carol Gaxiola, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in 1999 by two men who now both are serving life sentences. She is president of Homicide Survivors, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization that works with loved ones of murder victims and has about 1,600 members on its mailing list.
“It’s a cost that most people aren’t aware of, but there has to be a balance of what we’re paying and being safe.”
Gaxiola said she is aware that groups of people are discussing pushing for a change in the time limits of death penalty cases — and putting a limit on the costs of such trials.
“The number of appeals are there because of safeguards,” she said. “Executing someone is very serious and not to be taken lightly.”
Rich Robertson, a former television news reporter in the Valley who is well versed in public records laws and now works as a private investigator, said there are numerous government agencies responsible for a death penalty case, and it would be unfair to just look at the costs involved from an inmate’s standpoint.
“Death is different,” Robertson said. “A death penalty case is not a frivolous thing. There are different rules for death penalty cases that come into play at every level. There’s a more intensive use of resources to try to get it right, and that doesn’t always work. It’s not just a one-sided cost — it’s a system cost. Death row defendants are given two lawyers, mitigation experts research the defendant’s past, more forensic experts are on board.
“There’s also post-conviction relief costs involved to determine if there were any procedural errors made by the judge on the trial level as the case makes it way through the appeals process. The appeals processes are different because the stakes are so high. The decision is so final.
“The death penalty is set up to uphold the government to a higher standard as the case makes its way through the state level and to the federal level,” Robertson added. “So, are those unreasonable costs if the government is deciding whether to kill someone? Do they not deserve a second chance since the decision is so final?”
A federal public defender who was on a team of three attorneys who represented Donald Beaty, the most recent Arizona death row inmate to be executed, said it would be unlikely that specific costs would be broken down.
“We receive a budget, but how we break that out is something we would not disclose,” said Dale Baich, a federal defender in the Capital Habeas Unit Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona.
Baich also cited attorney-client privilege for part of the reason why taxpayers would not know the costs — at least until attorney-client privilege ends when a client dies.
Baich was one of three federal defenders who represented Beaty, who was executed May 25 for the 1984 rape and murder of 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff at a Tempe apartment complex. Beaty, 56, had been on death row since July 1985.
On the last two days of Beaty’s life, Beaty’s federal defenders filed at least five appeals trying to spare Beaty’s life. The appeals, which were filed within the Arizona Supreme Court, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, ranged from the defendant not receiving sufficient post-conviction legal counsel to a sedative drug being used in the execution violated Beaty’s rights. All were answered over a period of hours as top prison officials and representatives clocked in overtime.
The Tribune placed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal courts in Washington last week to see the defense and appeals costs of the last four Arizona death row inmates who were executed, but they have yet to respond to the request.
Baich said federal defenders began representing Beaty in 2006 when an appeal involving an argument over whether an admission he made to killing Fornoff to a jail psychologist was said voluntarily or in confidence became an issue of whether to block his execution.
The confession ultimately was determined to be made voluntarily and was allowed as part of the court record.
Since 2005 alone, Beaty’s public and federal defenders filed 11 appeals on his behalf, 10 of which were attempts to block the execution.
Four appeals were filed in the Arizona Supreme Court, four in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and three in the U.S. Supreme Court, according to information from the federal defender’s office in Phoenix.
Some of the appeals contended Beaty had ineffective legal counsel during his trial; challenged the change of protocol in a sedative drug to commence his execution; and one was for him being denied a contact visit, which death row inmates are not permitted to have.
Including Beaty, Arizona has had three executions in the last seven months and two more are scheduled to occur in less than two months — a day before Beaty was put to death before a crowd of more than 30 witnesses, Arizona Supreme Court justices approved death warrants for Richard Lynn Bible and Thomas Paul West.
Bible has been on death row since 1990 after being convicted of raping and fatally bludgeoning a 9-year-old Yuma girl on vacation with her family in Flagstaff.
West has been on death row since 1988 after being convicted in the beating death of a man just outside of Tucson after robbing him.
Until laws change that will remove the statutory “exempt” status of federal agencies from revealing the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on keeping alive inmates who have committed violent or heinous crimes, the total costs will continue to be unknown and drain federal resources, the state and, ultimately, the family members of crime victims and taxpayers who continue to shoulder the cost.
“It’s easy to make a law, but you have to consider all the ramifications within the legal system,” said Gaxiola, the Homicide Survivors president. “Everyone in the justice field is dedicated to seeing justice served in the best way possible. Justice needs to be efficient, but also be accurate.”
But the wheels of justice often turn slowly, she said.
“Each journey can be very different for each individual in the aftermath of a loved one being killed and excruciating for the family,” Gaxiola said. “Such a tragedy changes peoples’ lives forever.
“On one hand, when the defendant is convicted, they are incarcerated, so they are off the streets, but when something happens in a case later on, it can take the family back to the first day it happened and cause raw emotions to surface again.”
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