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Seattle University study finds Washington death penalty cases cost at least $1 million more than when death not sought

January 07, 2015

An in-depth study by four Seattle University professors found costs related to pursuing the death penalty are about 1.4 to 1.5 times more than when a prosecutor does not seek death.

Combining all cost categories, the average cost of a death penalty case in Washington is $3.07 million, compared to $2.01 million (in 2010 dollars) for cases in which the prosecutor does not seek death. Adjusted to 2014 dollars, that difference is $1.15 million.

Those are among the conclusions of seven-month study "An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Seeking the Death Penalty in Washington State." The purpose of the study was to estimate the costs associated with pursuit of the death penalty, as compared to cases where the death penalty was not sought, for aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington State. The study was limited to economic cost estimation only. It was developed to provide accurate estimates to inform debate and decision-making by policy makers and the public.

"This is the most rigorous empirical study done on the costs of the death penalty in Washington, say the principal authors, Professor from Practice Robert Boruchowitz from the School of Law and Professor Peter Collins from the Criminal Justice Department.

Peter Collins and Robert Boruchowitz While there have been several studies of the costs of death penalty cases both nationally and in Washington, most have not addressed in detail the full spectrum of costs from the beginning of trial proceedings through incarceration and execution," the authors say. "This report provides documentation on the entire scope of economic costs, and details the more than $1 million difference when the death penalty is sought."

They and their co-investigators, Criminal Justice Professor Matt Hickman and Law School Adjunct Professor Mark Larranaga, examined 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases since 1997 and reviewed data from more than 40 different sources. The report documents the costs in the different parts of the criminal justice system and explains the complexity of capital cases that leads to increased costs.

The study found that average trial level defense costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 2.8 to 3.5 times more expensive than cases not seeking the death penalty. Average trial level prosecution costs in death penalty cases are 2.3 to 4.2 times more expensive. Court, police/sheriff, and miscellaneous costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 3.9 to 8.1 times as much. Assuming a life sentence for all offenders, post-conviction lifetime incarceration costs (DOC) are .7 to .8 times that of DPNS case. Average jail costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 1.4 to 1.6 times more expensive than for non-death cases. (See chart.)

The team analyzed trial court reports of aggravated first-degree murder as well as Extraordinary Criminal Justice Act (ECJA) petitions in which local governments seek reimbursement from the state for costs in aggravated murder cases. They also reviewed data provided by the Washington Office of Public Defense, the Department of Corrections, the State Attorney General's office, prosecutors, public defenders, and a number of county governments.

The team used two methods to estimate costs: an all-inclusive method that used all of the eligible cases, and a more conservative approach that used a smaller sample of comparable cases selected using a technique known as Propensity Score Matching.

The report noted that the Washington Supreme Court has emphasized the need for defense counsel to be specially trained and certified, to be "learned in the law of capital punishment". The Court requires that when the death penalty is possible "At least two lawyers shall be appointed for the trial and also for the direct appeal." Developments in the case law have led to additional time and resources being required for capital cases.

The Court also has stated that "'[b]ecause the death penalty qualitatively differs from all other punishments, there must be reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment.'"

The report reviewed the outcomes of 33 cases in which death sentences were imposed and either are pending appeal or the appeals have been concluded. Of 24 cases that have completed their appellate review, 18 cases resulted in either the conviction and/or the death sentence was reversed.

By comparison, there are 298 non-death penalty trial reports cases. A search of these 298 non-death penalty trial reports reveals there have been at least 201 cases that have sought appellate review. Of those non-death penalty appeals, 181 have been affirmed and only 14 resulted in reversals.

That means since 1981, 75 percent of death penalty cases that have completed their review have resulted in reversal compared to the 7.5 percent reversal rate of the 201 non-death penalty appeals. There are nine cases currently on appeal in either state or federal courts. There have been five executions.

This is the first research collaboration project between the Criminal Justice Department and the School of Law. Also assisting on the project were Washington State University Professor David C. Brody, Seattle attorney Carl Schremp, and Seattle University Masters in Criminal Justice graduate student Jennifer Ertl.

The study was funded by a grant from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation. The ACLU-WF had no role in conducting the research and did not influence the analysis and formulation of conclusions.

Press Contacts:

Claudine Benmar, School of Law, 206 398-4175 ,
Dean Forbes, Seattle University, 206-296-6114,