This question is strictly about the economic cost of the death penalty. I understand there’s a lot of strong opinions about the ethics and effectiveness of the death penalty, but we’ll save those for Great Debates.
I heard an economic argument against the death penalty that it’s simply much too expensive compared to life imprisonment without parole. The argument said a death penalty sentence comes with so many mandatory appeals that it ends up costing taxpayers vastly more than simply “lock 'em up and throw away the key”.
Is that true? I get that we obviously want to have lots of appeals and legal double-checks on a death penalty case to reduce the chances of sentencing an innocent person. So yes, I grant the death penalty costs taxpayers a high legal cost. But I certainly hope that we’re granting those same appeals and double-checks to people sentences to life imprisonment, too.
So ignoring the ethical and effectivness arguments, is there any evidence that the direct economic cost of imposing a death penalty is significantly greater than imposing a mere life sentence?
In a death penalty case, most of the appeals are fighting the sentence, rather than the conviction. That is, they are attempting to get the sentence reduced from death to a term of imprisonment. Most of these appeals would not have been made without the death sentence. If someone is given a 30 year sentence he might make one appeal to get it reduced to 20 years. They won’t spend year after year fighting it.
Like the link says, even before the appeals get started death penalty cases cost more to try. A trial in which the death penalty is being sought simply takes longer to prepare for, longer to try, has more and better paid lawyers working on it, and has more numerous and more costly expert witnesses such as independent experts for the defense double checking the state’s experts, court appointed forensic psychiartists and psychologists for both the state and defense testifying to the defendant’s sanity, competence, future dangerousness, etc. The state is generally picking up a hefty tab for both sides.
Another is that since more federal and constitutional issues are implicated and there’s greater scrutiny expected due to the death penalty imposition, there’s a greater likelihood of the appeal progressing through the federal system as well as the state system. Most non-death penalty cases in my state will likely get one appeal, to one of the fourteen Courts of Appeals. After that, the Court of Criminal Appeals may decide to hear it at their discretion, but in most cases they don’t - their job is to guide policy in general, not to make sure every single case in the state is tried correctly. Once that direct appeal is exhausted, that’s usually it. Most run of the mill cases don’t present issues that will get them very far in post-conviction State habeas corpus proceedings or constitutional questions that will get their cases reviewed in the federal courts in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Perhaps more importantly, court appointed lawyers and public defenders are usually only paid for one direct appeal in the state courts, so if the defendant wants to continue with his case any further than that, he not only has to have a case that presesnts extrordinary issues, he has to be able to either pay for it himself or to find lawyers to do it pro bono who are competent in those issues. Death penalty cases are much more likely to get heard in post conviction state and federal habeas corpus proceedings, and the government will pay for their lawyers.