The cost of capital punishment

A KRCG 13 investigation reveals the average death penalty case in Missouri costs more than a comparable life without parole case.

By the time a Boone County jury sentenced Brian Dorsey to death for first-degree murder in 2008, the state had spent $162,960 to defend him.

In 2010, Horst Sabla was sentenced in Camden County for first-degree murder. Like Dorsey, Sabla used a public defender. But Sabla was sentenced to life without parole. His case cost $15,053 to defend.

The State of Missouri has never commissioned its own study comparing the costs of the death penalty and life without parole. But KRCG 13 reviewed the costs associated with some recent first-degree murder cases and found death penalty cases cost many times as much to the state's public defender system as do life without parole cases.

For this story, KRCG 13 randomly selected four cases where prosecutors sought the death penalty and four cases where prosecutors sought life without parole. All eight suspects were represented by a public defender, and all eight were convicted by a jury. Data provided by the Missouri State Public Defender show the four death penalty cases carried an average of $63,858 in direct costs plus another $70,805 in indirect costs. Defending these cases cost Missouri taxpayers a total average of $134,663. In contrast, the four life without parole cases incurred average direct costs of $5,592 and indirect costs of $282. The state spent a total of $5,874 defending these suspects on average.

Greg Mermelstein, the Appellate/Postconviction Director for the Missouri State Public Defender, said those costs come from the additional homework defense attorneys need to do for defendants facing the death penalty. He said a death penalty defense team typically includes four people, including one person who specializes in researching the client's past for factors that might convince a jury not to choose the death penalty. Those factors can include everything from the defendant's home life to their mental health.

"Mental health is often very expensive to investigate because you have to hire experts, various kinds of doctors for the case who can evaluate the defendant's mental health," he said.

Moreover, he said the sentencing phase of a death penalty case is almost a separate trial. That doesn't happen with life without parole cases.

KRCG 13 also obtained the courts' case party fee reports for all eight cases. This time, the death penalty cases cost less. They incurred $323.60 in court fees on average, compared to $17,053.91 for life without parole cases.

Unlike most states, Missouri does not house its death row inmates separately from the general prison population. The Missouri Department of Corrections says the average cost for housing these inmates is the same as the rest of its prisoners. That cost works out to an average of $20,958.30 per year. The department says the average death row inmate spends 11.9 years in prison before they are executed, which leads to an average cost of $249,403.77. Persons sentenced to life without parole typically live for 16.7 years in prison before they die of natural causes. That leads to an average cost of $350,003.61.

When all of the average costs are added together, Missouri taxpayers can expect to spend an average of $384,390.37 on a person tried and sentenced to death. The same person given a life without parole sentence will cost taxpayers an average of $372,931.52.

Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said he doesn't think that's enough of a difference to warrant a change in policy. Brattin is the vice-chair of the House Corrections Committee and a staunch supporter of the death penalty. He has introduced legislation over the last two years to allow executions by firing squad. He said those facing the death penalty have committed particularly heinous crimes, crimes for which the death penalty is the only logical punishment.

"It may be a cost, but I think if we deter someone, by using the death penalty, from committing a crime of murder, we have saved the state money," he said.

Brattin suggested the state look into stricter time limits for filing appeals and issuing death warrants. But Mermelstein said the state already has a 90-day time limit for filing a postconviction appeal. He said speeding up the process further increases the risk of a wrongful conviction. Four people have been exonerated from Missouri's death row since 1973.

For death penalty opponents like Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves, the question of whether to execute a convicted murderer is more moral than financial. Kirkton has introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty almost every year she has been in office.

"The state taking the life of another is not right," she said. "I think that if we're going to do something, we need to just lock them up and take away every right and privilege that they have."

Tennessee's Comptroller of the Treasury studied the costs of that state's death penalty in 2004 and found death penalty trials cost about $15,000 more on average than life without parole trials. Kansas, which is the only state with an active death penalty statute that hasn't executed anyone since the Gregg v. Georgia ruling in 1976, has commissioned several studies that have reached similar conclusions. The Missouri State Auditor's office said it would need a directive from the general assembly to carry out such a study. Legislation authorizing a formal death penalty cost study has been introduced several times, but it has never gone anywhere.

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