N.Y. death penalty cases cost $68 million since '95; Since reinstatement, 5 men ended up on death row


NEW YORK -- It's death on the installment plan -- and the payments are staggering.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in New York four years ago, five men have ended up on death row and the total cost to taxpayers for prosecution and defense in death penalty cases has been estimated at $68 million.

And by the time the first lethal injection is administered -- which could be more than 10 years from now -- those costs could soar to more than $238 million.

Since 1995, out of 486 "capital eligible" murder cases, New York prosecutors have sought the death penalty against 37 defendants. More than half of those cases ended with plea deals and life sentences. Eight are awaiting trial.

Of the nine death penalty trials completed, five resulted in death sentences and four in life without parole.

On death row at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, 20 miles from the Canadian border, it costs about $220,000 per year to guard them around the clock.

In Queens, two death penalty trials that resulted in sentences of life without parole cost the district attorney's office $487,207 in personnel expenses alone.

"One of the things that has concerned me from the very beginning has been the commitment of resources to capital cases," said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. "Implementation of this statute is a very costly and time-consuming proposition."

According to the Capital Defender Office, which was established under the 1995 death penalty law to ensure fair and effective representation for defendants in capital cases, $34,240,000 has been spent on capital defense since the law took effect.

Those costs include the Defender Office's annual budget, as well as money paid to court-appointed defense attorneys, defense investigators and experts.

A total of $14,756,500 has been allocated for capital defense costs in the current fiscal year.

"You certainly can have a cheap death penalty," said Kevin Doyle, New York's capital defender. "But then New York state's system of capital justice will look like that of Texas and it will be a laughingstock. The death penalty will inspire disrespect for the law, and there will be no fairness or finality in any case in which the prosecution seeks a capital sentence."

Texas has carried out 190 executions since 1976, including 25 this year. More than 400 people are on death row there.

No single statewide figure is available in New York for prosecution expenses incurred since 1995, because the work is spread among 62 county district attorneys who use a variety of methods for tracking death penalty expenses.

Jonathan Gradess, the executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, has been studying the cost of the death penalty in New York and around the country for more than 20 years.

"I certainly don't think the cost of prosecution is any less than the defense, so your total cost is up to $68 million already," said Gradess, who suspects the number is probably closer to $100 million.

The main reason the death penalty costs so much is because capital cases take much longer than regular murder cases.

Once a death sentence is handed down, an automatic appeals process begins that lasts for years and adds substantially to the tab of all death penalty cases.

"There's all this money being invested up front with the intent of getting an eventual execution," said Professor James Acker, a death penalty expert at the State University of New York in Albany. "But the return on the dollar of these investments is quite poor."

Half of all the death penalty trials in the United States result in a death sentence, Acker said, and half of those death sentences are eventually vacated.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad