The Death Penalty: Too Expensive to Justify

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On the evening of July 19, 2012, with great anticipation, hundreds of fans of the ‘Batman’ movie franchise lined up at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado to purchase tickets for the midnight showing of the most recent film, “The Dark Knight Rises”. This theater, the Century Aurora 16 Multiplex is located in the Denver metropolitan area, south of the downtown area. As it was summer, and children were not in school, people of all ages were at the theater that night, looking forward to the midnight showing. Among those people was a young man named James Holmes. The events that occurred shortly after the midnight showing of that movie would make national and international headlines the following day; Holmes, who had purchased a ticket to the movie in advance, had allegedly pre-planned a massacre inside the movie theater and then carried it out, in the dark. As Holmes burst in through a back door, guns firing, the theater became an attack zone, sending patrons screaming and running for their lives. After the gunfire stopped, 12 people were dead, and 58 were left wounded (Frosch, 2012, p.1). 

This tragedy was the worst mass murder crime to happen in the State of Colorado since April 20, 1999, when two armed students entered Columbine High School in Littleton and began shooting at classmates and teachers, leaving 13 people dead and 21 wounded (CNN, 2014, p.1). There would be only one difference between these two cases: the Columbine shooters did not survive that massacre, Holmes survived his murderous rampage, surrendering to Aurora Police outside the movie theater within minutes after the first 911 calls were made from people inside. 

By October of 2012, Holmes was facing a total of 166 charges against him including murder and attempted murder. In March of 2013, Holmes, through his court-appointed defense attorney made an offer to the District Attorney’s Office to plead guilty to all counts in order to avoid the death penalty. On April 1, 2013, the District Attorney rejected Holmes’ offer and officially announced that he would seek the death penalty in this case. In response, Holmes’ defense team then entered a plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ on his behalf (CNN, 2015, p.1).  According to some estimates, this case, once it actually gets to the trial phase, could last as long as eight months and the cost to taxpayers could be over $5 million (D’Amato, 2015, p.1). 

A New Death Penalty Debate: Dollars and Sense

Supporters of the death penalty have relied on the belief that some crimes people commit are so heinous and outrageous they actually ‘shock the conscience’ of society. Crimes against humanity, against children and mass murder, are just some of the offenses that can lead to a possible death sentence. It is for these unique crimes that the death penalty is reserved as a possible punishment. Supporters, especially those who have been victims or survivors of these heinous crimes, see the death penalty as ‘just deserts’ or an eye for an eye justice. Opponents of this form of justice have long argued that this sentence is final, and cannot be undone. These opponents support their argument with facts such as the number of people who, after decades spent on death row, have been exonerated through recent scientific methods such as DNA testing. Both sides, in support and in opposition, have made legitimate arguments. However, a third argument, based neither on morals nor science has recently entered the national discussion. As many states are still struggling to recover from the economic crisis of the last decade, these states are realizing that prosecuting defendants and seeking the death penalty may be an expense that is no longer affordable. 

The Bottom Line

According to an article written by Kelly Phillips Erb, it is not the execution itself that is expensive; recent reports show that the actual drugs used to carry out the execution cost only about $100. What drives up the costs in these capital cases is that “the outside costs associated with the death penalty are disproportionately higher” (Erb, 2014, p.2). Once a person is charged with a crime, and could possibly be eligible for the death penalty as a punishment, the defense of that individual changes due to many laws covering his or her rights to a proper legal defense. This situation goes well beyond the U.S. Constitution’s 6th Amendment guarantee of the assistance of counsel in all criminal defenses as it involves more than a possible prison term. 

Unfortunately, the majority of defendants who find themselves in the situation of facing a potential death sentence do not have the means to pay for a proper defense on their own, nor do their families. This places the burden of providing a proper defense directly upon the State or Federal governments. Defense attorneys, especially in high profile cases such as capital crime cases need to have special expertise in order to provide adequate defense for the accused, not only during the initial trial phase but during the guaranteed appellate phase, should the defendant be found guilty. These attorneys do not work for free. In the end, the State or Federal government is responsible for paying these attorneys; meaning, taxpayers eventually foot the bill for the defense of those accused of death penalty-eligible crimes. 

In 2014, the State of Nevada released the results of an audit conducted from 2000-2012. The purpose of this audit was to examine more closely the costs associated with the death penalty in Nevada. According to the findings of this report, the costs involved with prosecuting a death penalty case were approximately double of those costs associated with prosecuting a murder trial where the penalty was less. The reasons could be substantiated by the extra time involved in trying these cases, paying for defense attorneys, the appeals process, as well as incarceration of the accused. “These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error” (Lavender, 2014, p.1). The actual numerical figure that the report concluded was that death penalty cases in Nevada cost approximately $532,000 more than non-death penalty cases (p.1). 

Nevada is not the only state looking more closely at the costs associated with continuing to seek the death penalty. In the State of Maryland, for instance, the cost of prosecuting a single death penalty case can skyrocket to over $3 million over the cost of prosecuting a non-death penalty case. According to a study by the Kansas Judicial Council, a death penalty defense can cost about four times that of a non-death penalty defense (DPIC, 2015, 1). 

In the State of California, according to the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, the state could save millions of dollars a year by getting rid of the death penalty. The actual monetary figure they as listed by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice stated that it was $27 million (Lavender, 2014, p.1). Much of California’s costs can be attributed to the extremely lengthy appeals process; much longer than any other state. The average wait from conviction to lethal injection in California is 20 years (AP, 2009, p.1). 

As more and more audits, studies and reports are being published, even some of the staunchest supporters of the death penalty are taking a second look at the issue; not from a moral or scientific standpoint, but from a fiscally responsible point of view. One such person is former California Judge Donald McCartin, known as “The Hanging Judge of Orange County” (AP, 2014, p.1). According to McCartin, “It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive” and “It’s a waste of time and money…The only thing it does is prolong the agony for the victims’ families” (AP, 2014, p.1). During his tenure on the bench, McCartin sentenced nine convicted killers to death. Since then, only one has died; not by lethal injection but from suffering a fatal heart attack while in custody (AP, 2014, p.1). 

New Jersey Makes the First Move

On December 13, 2007, following the approval vote of the New Jersey State Senate, General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty, making the Garden State the first in the country to abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976 (Richburg, 2007, p.1). This vote did not come without serious opposition from the supporters of the death penalty, two in particular associated with a very familiar case; the parents of Megan Kanka. Megan was just 7 years old when she decided to take a bike ride around her neighborhood on a July evening in 1994. She had many friends in her neighborhood and often rode her bike to visit them. However this evening, she would never return. Megan was lured into a home by a man living in the area named Jesse K. Timmendequas, who then raped and strangled her. Timmendequas, a previous sex offender, was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death for his crime; Megan’s parents would go on to create and help pass national legislation called “Megan’s Law” that mandates, among many things, all sex offenders must register their addresses with the government (Richburg, 2007, p.2). 

Taking into consideration the very strong, nationally recognizable opposition to the abolishment of the death penalty, N.J. State lawmakers considered one other factor before casting their votes. The bottom line, in a bad economy, came down to dollars and cents. According to a report by Washington Post Staff Writer Keith B. Richburg, 

“In the end, the most compelling case for New Jersey lawmakers was the economic one. Keeping inmates on death row costs the state $72,602 per year for each prisoner, according to the commission. Inmates kept in the general population cost $40,121 per year each to house. The corrections department estimates that repeal could save the state as much as $1.3 million per inmate over his lifetime – and that figure does not include the millions spent by public defenders on inmates’ appeals”. (Richburg, 2007, p.2). 

Perhaps, of all the arguments surrounding the death penalty, the one that is now making the most sense and appealing to the general public is that it’s just too expensive to continue. Unlike the other arguments that are filled with passion, or backed by science that many people cannot understand, the universal language to the majority of the people is ‘the bottom line’ when it comes to dollars and cents. Historically speaking, the American people have never been fond of paying taxes or fees that are not necessary or could be cut from a budget to save taxpayers money. From a fiscally responsible standpoint, it makes sense for states to abolish the death penalty. 

However, for the citizens of the State of Colorado, based on the decision of the government, the death penalty case against James Holmes will go forward, and the costs will continue to add up. Had the prosecution initially accepted the offer by the defense on behalf of Holmes to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecution to not seek the death penalty, this case would have been settled and the expensive trial would not have been necessary. Once that offer was rejected, the defense team (funded by taxpayer dollars) continued to work on Holmes’ defense and entered a plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’. As a result, and at the taxpayer’s expense, the case against James Holmes will go forward. 

As the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting case moves forward, as well as many other potential death penalty cases proceed in states other than Colorado, and the bills continue to add up, perhaps more citizens will take another look at the actual purpose of the death penalty and pose the question: Can we really afford this?


Associated Press (AP) (2009) “To Execute or not: A question of Cost” Retrieved 3/17/15

CNN (2012) “Timeline: Colorado Theater Shooting” Retrieved 3/18/15

D’Amato, Pete (2015) “Colorado Public Defender keeps price of defending ‘Batman’ shooter James Holmes a closely held secret…” The Daily Mail, Retrieved 3/17/15.

Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) (2015) Retrieved 3/17/15

Erb, Kelly Phillips (2014) “Considering The Death Penalty: Your Tax Dollars At Work” Forbes. Retrieved 3/16/15

Frosch, Dan and Kirk Johnson (2012) “Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun Debate” The New York Times, Retrieved 3/17/15

Lavender, Paige (2014) “This State’s Review of the Death Penalty Reveals the Shocking Cost Of Executing a Prisoner” Huffington Post, Retrieved 3/16/15

Richburg, Keith B. (2007) “N.J. Approves Abolition of Death Penalty; Corzine to Sign”  The Washington Post, Retrieved 3/18/15