Death penalty costs Md. more than life term

March 06, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

The death penalty has cost Maryland taxpayers at least $186 million more in prosecuting and defending capital murder cases over two decades than would have been spent without the threat of execution, according to a study to be released today.

In addition, because most death sentences in Maryland are overturned and eventually reduced to life without parole, state residents are often saddled with the high cost of a capital case and the bill for housing a convicted killer for life, the study found.

Paid for by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation and prepared by the Urban Institute, a national, nonpartisan research organization in Washington, the study estimates that the cost of reaching a single death sentence costs the state an average of $3 million, which is $1.9 million more than a non-death penalty case costs, even after factoring in the long-term costs of incarcerating convicted killers not sentenced to death.

The report - the first to analyze the cost of capital punishment in Maryland - arrives as state lawmakers prepare to again debate repealing the death penalty. A hearing is scheduled for today in Annapolis on a Senate bill that would eliminate capital punishment as a sentencing option. A similar House bill is scheduled to be heard next week.

"This is a compelling argument against the death penalty - the enormous costs to the state's taxpayers," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent who focused on the financial costs of capital punishment when he testified last year in support of repeal. The bill was defeated by one vote in a Senate committee last year.

The top prosecutor in Baltimore County - which accounts for more capital cases than any other jurisdiction in the state - assailed the study's conclusions and its use of attorneys' salaries to calculate the cost of the death penalty in Maryland.

"That is a completely worthless number, because we don't go out and hire new lawyers to try these cases," Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said. "They get assigned to my most experienced lawyers, who will work as many hours as it takes to put the case on, and don't get any more money."

Speaking of prosecutor S. Ann Brobst, who handles many of the county's capital murder cases, Shellenberger said, "Ann's got a ton to do. It's just a matter of whether she does one ton or two tons. When she takes these cases, she doesn't complain. She doesn't get more money for it. She just does her job."

Using data collected by a University of Maryland professor who studied racial and geographic disparities in the application of the state's death penalty law, the Urban Institute researchers examined 162 capital murder cases that were prosecuted between 1978 - when Maryland reinstated capital punishment as a sentencing option - and 1999.

To calculate the cost of a capital case, researchers interviewed prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to estimate the time spent on each segment of a case. That time estimate was then applied to such expenses as the value of court space and the salaries of those handling capital cases.

The final tally revealed that prosecuting 162 cases in which death sentences were sought cost $186 million more than what prosecuting those cases would have otherwise cost, according to the study. Of that, $70.9 million was spent on 106 capital cases that did not result in a death sentence while $107.4 million was spent on 56 cases that did. In addition, more than $7 million was spent by the state public defender's capital defense division for activities not accounted for elsewhere in the study.

The researchers found that capital murder cases cost more than non-capital murder cases at almost every phase of the case. Trials cost an estimated $616,000 more, they found. The "penalty phase" of a capital case - during which a judge or jury hears testimony to determine a sentence for a convicted killer - costs $326,000. And state and federal appeals cost $605,000 more than appeals filed in non-capital cases.

The researchers also found that inmates sentenced to death cost $316,000 more to incarcerate than convicted killers who receive lesser sentences. "This is partly because the type of confinement for death-sentenced inmates is more expensive," the study's authors wrote, "but also due to the reality that few of those sentenced to death are actually executed."

The Urban Institute's total dollar figure does not include costs associated with federal court proceedings in state capital cases.

Although groups in many death penalty states have analyzed the cost of such cases, the Urban Institute's Maryland study is the first to statistically control for factors that might otherwise make a capital case more expensive, said Andrew Davies, a researcher with the New York State Defenders Association, which in the 1980s completed the first such study.

"The argument goes that ... death penalty cases might be worse or more heinous cases, so that even if they weren't death penalty cases, they still would be more expensive," he said. "But in this study, they've isolated the pure effect of the death penalty on inflating the cost of cases."

But Shellenberger said it is ridiculous to suggest that all these costs would be avoided simply by getting rid of the death penalty.

"No matter what the ultimate punishment is going to be in the state of Maryland - whether it's death or life without parole - every good defense counsel is going to fight their hardest against the ultimate punishment," he said. "There is no magic end to all this litigation just because someone doesn't get the death penalty."

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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