After decades of moral arguments reaching biblical proportions, after long, twisted journeys to the nation’s highest court and back, the death penalty may be abandoned by several states for a reason having nothing to do with right or wrong:
Turns out, it is cheaper to imprison killers for life than to execute them, according to a series of recent surveys. Tens of millions of dollars cheaper, politicians are learning, during a tumbling recession when nearly every state faces job cuts and massive deficits.
So an increasing number of them are considering abolishing capital punishment in favor of life imprisonment, not on principle but out of financial necessity.
“It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive,” though most Americans believe the opposite, said Donald McCartin, a former California jurist known as “The Hanging Judge of Orange County” for sending nine men to death row.
Deep into retirement, he lost his faith in an eye for an eye and now speaks against it. What changed a mind so set on the ultimate punishment?
California’s legendarily slow appeals system, which produces an average wait of nearly 20 years from conviction to fatal injection — the longest in the nation. Of the nine convicted killers McCartin sent to death row, only one has died. Not by execution, but from a heart attack in custody.
“Every one of my cases is bogged up in the appellate system,” said McCartin, who retired in 1993 after 15 years on the bench.
“It’s a waste of time and money,” said the 82-year-old, self-described right-wing Republican whose sonorous voice still commands attention. “The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims’ families.”
In 2007, time and money were the reasons New Jersey became the first state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1972.
Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine commuted the executions of 10 men to life imprisonment without parole. Legal costs were too great and produced no result, lawmakers said. After spending an estimated $4.2 million for each death sentence, the state had executed no one since 1963. Also, eliminating capital punishment eliminated the risk of executing an innocent person.
Out of 36 remaining states with the death penalty, at least eight have considered legislation this year to end it — Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Washington and Kansas — an uncommon marriage between eastern liberals and western conservatives, built on economic hardship.
“This is the first time in which cost has been the prevalent issue in discussing the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a data clearinghouse that favors abolition of capital punishment.
The most recent arguments against it centered on the ever-increasing number of convicts cleared by DNA evidence.
Some of the worst cases occurred in Illinois. In 2000, then-Gov. George H. Ryan placed a moratorium on executions after 13 people had been exonerated from death row for reasons including genetic testing and recanted testimony. Ryan declared the system “so fraught with error that it has come close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life.”
He commuted the sentences of all 167 death row convicts, most to life imprisonment without parole. His moratorium is still in effect.
Across the country, the number of prisoners exonerated and released from death row is more than 130, with thousands of appeals clogging the courts.
Death penalty trials are more expensive for several reasons: They often require extra lawyers; there are strict experience requirements for attorneys, leading to lengthy appellate waits while capable counsel is sought for the accused; security costs are higher, as well as costs for processing evidence — DNA testing, for example, is far more expensive than simple blood analyses.
After sentencing, prices continue to rise. It costs more to house death row inmates, who are held in segregated sections, in individual cells, with guards delivering everything from daily meals to toilet paper.
In Kansas, Republican state Sen. Caroline McGinn is pushing a bill that would repeal the death penalty effective July 1. Kansas, which voted to suspend tax refunds, faces a budget deficit of nearly $200 million. McGinn urged fellow legislators “to think outside the box” for ways to save money. According to a state survey, capital cases were 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases.