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America counts cost of capital punishment

Maryland senators are told that court cases are three times cheaper when the defendant is not facing execution.

Nebraska is the only state that uses the electric chair, although a bill to abolish the death penalty has gone before lawmakers.
Nebraska is the only state that uses the electric chair, although a bill to abolish the death penalty has gone before lawmakers.

WASHINGTON // Two weeks ago, Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland, spoke before the state Senate in favour of abolishing the death penalty. But the Roman Catholic did not defend his stance on religious grounds. Rather, he took a new line in the debate: appealing to the sensibilities of a state, like many others, facing the crunch of a global financial crisis.

The issue rests on a cost analysis positing that to prosecute a case all the way to a death sentence is far more expensive than simply seeking to put a criminal behind bars for life without parole. "The cost to taxpayers of pursuing a capital case was three times as much as the costs of pursuing a non-death penalty homicide conviction - US$3 million (Dh11m) versus $1.1m," Mr O'Malley told legislators, citing the findings of a state Commission on Capital Punishment.

A separate, non-partisan study by the Urban Institute of all Maryland homicides eligible for capital punishment between 1978 and 1999 said that a prosecution that does not pursue the death penalty saves the state about $450,000 per trial - even before appeals and prison costs. On average, just the trial costs an additional $175,000 if a death sentence is handed down. Belt-tightening is forcing the highly politicised issue to the forefront of American state-level politics. Of the 36 states that still have capital punishment statutes, at least seven recently saw bills proposed to abolish the practice of putting criminals to death.

In addition to Maryland, they include Montana, New Hampshire, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Nebraska. Experts say that, of those, the legislation in Montana, New Mexico and possibly Colorado have the best chances of succeeding. In Georgia, the story of Brian Nichols is one of the most poignant in the dogged pursuit of a death sentence. Known as the Courthouse Shooter, Nichols was on trial for rape in 2005 when he escaped custody and killed four people, including the judge presiding over his case.

Nichols's subsequent trial for homicide reportedly cost the Georgia public defenders system more than $2m. The state drove up the cost by fighting fiercely for the death penalty, but Nichols was nevertheless sentenced to life in prison, as the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision. Now with the fiscal crisis putting the entire state deep in the red, the public defence council's budget faces a 10 per cent budget cut even as it reportedly might be responsible for providing representation for a slew of death row retrials.

Experts have said this would bankrupt the council but others argue that the state has an obligation to bear the financial burden of capital cases. It was a Supreme Court decision on a Georgia case in 1972 that brought executions across the US to a halt by ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional as it amounted to "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the eighth amendment. Since the federal moratorium was lifted in 1976 with the mandated imposition of separate trials for conviction and sentencing, more than 1,100 people have been executed in the US.

While fiscal considerations are gaining traction, Christopher Hill, the strategist of the anti-capital punishment American Civil Liberties Union Death Penalty Project, said the overriding concern about the death penalty is still innocents who are wrongly executed. DNA evidence has made it possible to review many cases and some of the accused are exonerated - sometimes those already put to death. "In the last five years, 130 people have been exonerated from death row," Mr Hill said, suggesting that was a striking number when compared against the total executed. "While the exorbitant cost of capital punishment is one reason to abolish the death penalty, it is not the only reason."

More than 3,300 people currently sit on death row in the US, where they cost the tax payer an additional $90,000 a year more than someone in a maximum-security prison, according to the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Despite the timely reasoning of capital punishment's excessive cost, however, Maryland's death penalty appears to have survived this attempt at abolition. After a procedural move that forced debate despite a committee hearing, the state Senate is set to pass a bill that severely restricts cases eligible for pursuing the death penalty rather than abolishing it entirely.

In Kansas, the bill to abolish capital punishment was proposed by a Republican senator, Carolyn McGinn, a break from the usual party split that sees Republicans supporting the death penalty and Democrats opposing it. Mrs McGinn made clear that she was proposing the bill in order to save Kansas money. Although the death penalty was reinstated in the state in 1994, not a single person has been put to death, and the state spends an estimated 70 per cent more in trying capital cases, rather than in seeking life imprisonment.

Every case in which Kansas opts out of pursuing the death penalty could trim by half a million the state's nearly $200m deficit, she said. However, a vote in the legislature left the outcome of the bill up in the air after it was recommended for further study. Another vote at the end of the legislative session will determine whether the bill will be researched further or shelved entirely. Jean Schodorf, who opposes the bill, said it was her memory of the Carr brothers that reminded her of the need for a deterrent such as the death penalty.

Jonathan and Reginald Carr were sentenced to death in 2002 after committing dozens of crimes, including a brutal group rape and execution-style murders, which are now known as the Wichita Massacre. The Carr brothers are two of 10 men on death row in Kansas. William Hubbarth, a lawyer from Austin, Texas, the state with the highest execution rate, said the cost excuse is a fallacy created by the "propaganda machine" of the anti-death penalty movement.

"The reason that it's more expensive is that people throw up roadblocks and create unnecessary litigation," he said. Mr Hubbarth, who does pro-bono advocacy for Justice For All, the publisher of ProDeathPenalty.com, said: "It becomes more expensive because the state has to use man hours to respond to it." Mr Hubbarth said the argument that the death penalty was too expensive pitted "the financial cost against the will of the people".

While Maryland's Mr O'Malley has long opposed the death penalty, New Mexico's governor, Bill Richardson, has been a consistent proponent of executions. However, he recently said he would consider signing an abolition bill should it pass the legislature. Gov Richardson said that while his chief worries were innocents put to death, he was also influenced by the cost of executions, which he said was "a valid reason in this era of austerity and tight budgets".

New Mexico only has two men on death row, and, in the last 41 years, has executed only one man, a child murderer and rapist named Terry Clark. * The National