Sham Death Penalty Is A Costly Luxury For State

Dan Haar
Dan Haar

Three years after his heinous crime, Steven Hayes received the death penalty sentence.

At age 47, the murderer has decades of appeals before him and little chance of ever seeing the inside of an execution chamber — unless he sues the state for the right to die.

But Hayes' membership in that shameful club will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, over and above what we'd pay if we had just decided to lock him up for good.

It's the same for Connecticut's entire death row. Among nine other men on the list, no one is even close to the final needle.

The furthest along is Sedrick "Ricky" Cobb, who was sentenced in 1991 for the murder of a Watertown woman. After nearly two decades, Cobb, 48, is less than halfway through the labyrinth that's rightly in place to make sure his execution is the right thing to do.

And through it all, for all the inmates on death row and the many more who were tried on capital felony charges, Connecticut taxpayers have spent somewhere between $100 million and $200 million on this folly we call the death penalty since the state revived its law in 1973.

No one has calculated the ultimate bill, but various studies and estimates place the cost of maintaining a Connecticut death penalty at $5 million or so a year, perhaps as much as $10 million depending on the flow of cases.

There's almost no way to view this as anything but a colossal waste. No one is dying, and yet we're spending huge dollars in a sham process aimed at killing murderers at a time when the state is $3.4 billion in the hole.

The one convict executed, Michael Ross in 2005, had to fight for the right to die in a case that cost a fortune and proved that the state's death penalty doesn't work — unless we think it's OK to execute only those murderers who want to die.

Raising the issue of money is, on some levels, crass. The arguments for and against the death penalty are hallowed, and steeped in the juice of high public morals. Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue basically said as much when he barred Hayes' defense from presenting evidence of the obscene cost of the death penalty.

"Economic arguments tailored to specific individuals are not only irrelevant but perverse," Blue said. Considering that the cost of the death penalty compared with the cost of life imprisonment depends on the convict's age, Blue added, "This argument plainly makes no moral sense."

That's true for any one convict, as Blue said. But we can and should look at the cost of maintaining a death penalty as part of the larger debate, because we're talking about real money for a real failure of policy.

And it doesn't matter whether you think the state should or should not be in the business of killing criminals. The fact is, we're spending a fortune for nothing.

"Everyone seems to take the position, 'Well, cost just is inconsequential,' " said Patrick Culligan, chief of the 14-person capital defense and trial services unit for the state public defender's office. "But it really isn't."

There's plenty else the state could spend that money on, starting with better ways to deter crime in the first place, like putting more cops on the street. In a survey by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington, police chiefs cited expansion of the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime.

The costs have not been added up, but signs point to huge excess outlays every step of the way, from the time a prosecutor decides to seek a death penalty.

Capital cases total one-tenth of 1 percent of all criminal cases in Connecticut, but eat up between 5 percent and 5.5 percent of the public defender's budget, Culligan said — at least $2.5 million a year.

And that's just one little piece of the costs. By the time a murder suspect reaches the death chamber, he will have gone through a litany of trials, retrials and appeals that basically stretches forever.

Earlier this year the death sentence of Robert Courchesne was overturned by the state Supreme Court. That step alone took more than six years — and it was just the first of at least eight steps in state and federal courts that Courchesne was entitled to. In not one but two of those steps, the trial is essentially redone, complete with costly outside experts, but no jury.

James Austin, the expert who was prepared to testify at Hayes' trial, said the death penalty would increase the cost of the case by 50 percent, from $2 million to $3 million, over Hayes' lifetime. But remember, that's not one case out of 10 inmates on death row, it's one of dozens and dozens of capital cases the state must try.

New Jersey conducted a study showing a total cost of $253 million above what it would have cost to lock up convicted murderers for life — over a period of 20 years. And that state has the same number of death row inmates as Connecticut.

A study in Maryland showed an added cost of $186 million between 1978 and 1999, for 162 capital cases. Connecticut has had 240 capital cases since 1973, said Culligan, who is one of Hayes' lawyers.

And if all this spending isn't enough, consider that the death penalty itself is headed for trial in Connecticut, in a case designed to find out whether it's racially discriminatory. That case has not even been scheduled for trial yet, and, Culligan said, the outside consultant working on behalf of keeping the death penalty has billed the state $600,000 so far.

While we're waiting, it costs much more to keep inmates on death row because they're segregated at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, the state's most costly prison — not necessarily the home of lifers without parole.

In Illinois, a state that has executed 13 inmates and was in the vanguard of overturning cases based on DNA evidence, some opinion leaders have turned away from execution because of cost. We're at the point in the state budget crisis where the easy cuts have already happened, and we now need to start thinking about programs like the death penalty.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, calls the penalty "a very expensive form of life without parole."

Or, as Culligan calls it, "a luxury item in the criminal justice system."

"You could provide a lot of services to victims' families that are not being provided," Culligan added.

The death penalty, by contrast, is a money pit for a mirage of justice.

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