With a bill to repeal the death penalty likely to be introduced in the 2013 Colorado Legislature, there are bound to be philosophical arguments about the merits of capital punishment. One thing that seems beyond debate, though, is that ending the death penalty could save Colorado taxpayers a lot of money.
No one can say exactly how much Colorado spends administering its death penalty, but it is certainly in the tens of millions of dollars for each person executed. A study by the Death Penalty Information Center in 2009 found that states with a death penalty spend an average of $10 million a year enforcing it. That same study said that 70 percent of the expense stems from legal work that’s not necessary in non-capital cases. Considering that Colorado executed one man in 1967 and one in 1997, the cost associated with killing almost no one quickly adds up.
“Since 1980, we [Colorado taxpayers] have spent tens of millions of dollars on one execution,” said criminal defense attorney David Lane who has represented many death-penalty eligible clients. “That’s money that could go to schools. It could go to police officers.”
When a case meanders through the court system for 20 years as Dunlap’s case has, it is easy to see how it can get expensive for taxpayers. The public foots the bill for most defendants, who typically are indigent. State-funded defense teams usually have at least two attorneys, who are capped at a billing rate of $85 an hour. They also include at least one or two full-time investigators, who bill $39 hourly to review all evidence uncovered by police and to dig up new evidence that the police may have missed. For $25 an hour, at least one paralegal organizes all the scheduling and paperwork, which in a death case that is active for many years can easily run into tens of thousands of pages. Paralegals transcribe tapes of calls and meetings, arrange travel and court appearances, and keep up with massive amounts of correspondence.
Most cases also require a dozen or more expert witnesses whom the state pays whatever the market demands – often well above $200 an hour — plus travel and other expenses. “We try to pay less, believe me,” said Lindy Frolich, executive director of Colorado’s Alternate Defense Counsel, the state agency that appoints private defense teams when the state Public Defender’s Office has a conflict of interest.
Such conflicts arise when two defendants are being tried for the same crime and also at the appeal stage, when it would be hard for attorneys who lost a death case to then argue that they had screwed up.
Richard Dieter, executive director of national anti-death penalty group The Death Penalty Information Center, says several states have tried to cap how much can be spent on defense expenses. Some states haven’t wanted to pay for so-called mitigation specialists who look for mitigating factors in a defendant’s background that may persuade a jury not to hand down a death sentence. Their research entails deeply investigating many aspects of a client’s history such as school records, mental illness in the family and accounts from teachers, childhood friends and neighbors, to name a few. Although the hours are long and the cost is high, the law requires defense teams to prepare thorough defenses. “The Supreme Court has said you have to investigate a defendant’s past,” Dieter said. “You have to defend your client to the full extent that you can.” READ THE REST