Indigent Defense Services, which oversees legal representation for all indigent defendants in North Carolina, has released a study about the cost of the death penalty at the trial level. The study is available online here.
The primary revelation of the study is that the cost of the death penalty has been exploded by DA charging decisions.
A person accused of intentional homicide can be charged with first degree murder, second degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, depending on the circumstances of the killing. As many as 88% of intentional homicides are charged as either first degree or undesignated murder. These cases cost, on average, $27,834 in defense spending. [The State does not release data on the cost of prosecuting such cases.] However, 83% of these cases are resolved with pleas or verdicts of second degree murder or less. Had they been charged as second degree murder from the beginning, each case would have cost approximately $1,931. When you consider that there are on average 869 intentional homicides in North Carolina every year, better charging decisions could save just shy of $20 million annually.
Another way DAs drive up costs is by proceeding capitally in roughly a third of all first degree murder cases. The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the rare, egregious case. By seeking death in a first degree murder case, DAs magnify defense costs – tripling costs in cases that end in a plea, quintupling costs in cases that go to trial. Between 2002 and 2005, DAs sought death at some point in 464 cases. Had all of those cases proceeded non-capitally, the state of North Carolina would have saved over $21 million.
Remember that since 2001, the State has only obtained a death sentence in 3% of cases where it has been sought. More than 60% of cases in which the State initially sought the death penalty resulted in a conviction of second degree murder or less.
A few other findings:
- The average cost of a potentially capital case has not risen in the last several years. However, the number of open cases has grown significantly, increasing costs overall.
- While the media tends to focus on expensive, high-profile cases, half of potentially capital cases are resolved for less than $15,000 in defense expenditures (attorney and expert costs combined).
The study does not propose that the death penalty be abolished to save money. It simply suggests that IDS and district attorneys can work together to reduce the waste produced by reckless charging decisions. In these tough economic times, that’s not politics, that’s just good sense.