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Lawmakers urged to debate steep costs of death penalty

Zoeller

– Attorney General Greg Zoeller used a legal summit to kick-start a statewide discussion of the financial burdens associated with the death penalty in Indiana.

He told 75 lawyers and law students at a University of Notre Dame event Monday that state lawmakers and policymakers should take a hard look at the costs and fiscal burden of capital punishment cases in Indiana.

But he did not call for a repeal of or moratorium on the death penalty. He also had no specific proposals.

Zoeller said the costs for a lengthy capital murder case can be exorbitant for a county government, including the costs of death penalty-qualified defense lawyers, expert witnesses, courthouse security and lodging for sequestered jurors.

And the costs to taxpayers continue to accumulate during the appeals process that can take 10 years or longer to play out. It cost more than $500,000 in defense costs alone to try a recent death penalty case in Warrick County, Zoeller spokesman Bryan Corbin said.

And at a time of shrinking revenue and when the judicial branch has little flexibility to cut budgets, Zoeller said legislators and policymakers should look carefully at cost structures driving the expense of death penalty cases at the trial and appellate levels.

“It is time that we in the criminal justice system have a candid conversation about the economic impact of capital punishment in Indiana,” he said. “I don’t claim to know the answers, but as the state government’s lawyer sworn to uphold the laws of Indiana, I hope we can trigger a frank discussion of these questions. We serve the crime victims and our constituents – the taxpayers – best if we confront a problem directly and objectively.”

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, chairman of the Senate Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters Committee, said he doesn’t think lawmakers are interested in getting rid of the death penalty.

“There are some cases that are so heinous in nature that the only penalty that is just is death,” he said.

Suggestions

One panelist at Monday’s event, economics professor Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University, presented her recent academic study on the fiscal considerations of the death penalty in Indiana.

She said the Indiana Public Defense Fund reimburses 50 percent of the defense costs from the trial phase of capital cases and prioritizes those reimbursements, leaving less money potentially available to reimburse local costs for non-capital cases.

Among her study’s suggestions: Indiana could develop stricter limitations on reimbursement for trial expenses – possibly by limiting the number or type of expert witnesses or capping their fees – or develop more aggressive audit procedures after the fact.

But Steele said Indiana has one of the best systems in place to protect a defendant’s due-process rights at a reasonable cost.

“We are a model for the nation,” he said. “We drove all the costs out we could. I don’t know where to begin to make it cheaper.”

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, believes attempts to cut costs could cause shortcuts in defendants’ due process, increasing the chance of that an innocent person would be executed.

“Cost is really a false issue,” Landis said. “We’re only dealing with a handful of cases filed each year. … In terms of criminal justice expenditures, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

Indiana has the option of life without parole, putting defendants behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Asking for life without parole as a sentencing option gives prosecutors the opportunity to protect the public from predators and minimize the costs associated with death penalty appeals.

Even if prosecutors file a death penalty case only to withdraw it during plea negotiations, it already costs the counties money, Landis said.

“The meter is running the whole time, and you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get what you could have gotten with life without parole,” he said. “What we should be focused on, rather than it costs a lot of money, is that it’s an expenditure that is created when a prosecutor makes a choice to file a death penalty request. The best way to avoid the cost is don’t make that request.

“If you want to avoid the expense of a death penalty case, don’t file it. File it as a life-without-parole case, you get the same result, without all of the expense,” Landis said.

Locally, prosecutors take into account a number of other factors in the decision to seek the death penalty – such as the heinousness of the crime. And they know going into such a case that they will have to pay attention to the details so that the case can stand up to review by the higher courts, Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said.

He said that under Prosecutor Karen Richards, Allen County has not made a decision on whether to either seek the death penalty because of costs. He suspects the same was true for earlier prosecutors’ administrations.

“So many factors that go into dealing with a death penalty case, and I think Indiana prosecutors take their responsibility very seriously,” he said.

nkelly@jg.net; rgreen@jg.net

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