The death penalty: Worth the cost?

2010-07-04T00:00:00Z 2010-07-04T11:28:30Z The death penalty: Worth the cost?By Susan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | With the recent addition of murder defendant David Flores, accused of last fall's brutal double slaying of two sisters in Griffith, budget-strapped Lake County is facing the cost of two active death penalty cases even as the benefit is heavily in debate.

Flores is awaiting trial on his capital case as is Kevin Isom, a Gary man charged in August 2007 for allegedly murdering his wife and two children. Prosecutors announced they were seeking the death penalty the following January.

Cost vs. benefit

A state analysis found the average cost to a county for trial and direct appeal in six capital cases averaged $449,887, in contrast to seven life-without-parole cases that averaged $42,658.

Prepared by the Legislative Services Agency for this year's General Assembly, the study also found even with factoring in the longer incarceration period for those sentenced to life without parole, the cost of the death penalty outweighed that of a life sentence.

The benefits of the death penalty, meanwhile, are under increasing scrutiny in Indiana and nationwide.

The question of innocence has become a major catalyst for many changes surrounding the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that analyzes capital punishment.

Nine new exonerations in 2009 brought the national total to 138 since 1973, according to the center.

In addition, the impact of the country's deep economic crisis has state leaders questioning the use of taxpayer dollars on a flawed system, the center asserts.

Eleven states debated legislation to abolish the death penalty last year with New Mexico joining New Jersey and New York in ending the death penalty.

Back home in Indiana

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said the last thing a victim's family wants to hear about is cost.

"I am a proponent of the death penalty," Carter said. "I certainly understand the economics of it."

But he and victims are concerned about justice being served, he said.

Carter said the vast majority of the approximately 50 homicides charged each year in Lake County don't qualify for the death penalty.

"I certainly think the death penalty should only be used in situations where they are truly merited," he said. "These are exceptional cases."

The two active Lake County death penalty cases are among only seven pending statewide, matching in number those of Marion County, according to data kept by the Indiana Public Defender Council. The remaining three active cases are in Madison, Sullivan and Vanderburgh counties.

For a variety of reasons, data uniformly show prosecutions involving the death penalty are in decline internationally, nationally and within the state.

Indiana prosecutors did not file a new death penalty case anywhere in the state from August 2006 through December 2007, according to the public defender council.

Of the current active cases, three were filed in 2008 with the two most recent filings occurring in April of this year.

Along with others in legal circles, Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, believes the option of a sentence of life without parole likely has played a role in the decline of death sentence filings.

"It probably has," Johnson said.

The life-without-parole option involves following the same procedures though it carries a lesser penalty, he said.

Johnson pointed to a reluctance by prosecutors to file death penalty cases in view of the "extra-super burden of proof" increasingly demanded by jurors influenced by crime shows.

Johnson said prosecutors call the development the "CSI effect."

"You better be awfully certain," Johnson said of prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

According to the public defender council, more capital cases actually are resolved by plea agreement than by trial.

Between 1990 and 2000, out of the 4,617 murders and homicides reported in Indiana on FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the council found prosecutors requested the death penalty in only 153 cases, of which 48 went to trial. Of those, 25 resulted in death sentences, four of which ended in execution.

Clark County Prosecutor Steven Stewart, whose website offers a plethora of information on the death penalty, said there is no other acceptable alternative punishment for certain types of murders.

"The fact that 9 percent of the people on death row in the country have more than one homicide conviction says something," Stewart said.

He believes the cost is exaggerated by opponents of the death penalty, but there's no question death penalty cases cost more, Stewart said.

The cost is related to the trial rules ordered by the state Supreme Court, he said.

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