Why do prosecutors push for the death penalty?

Is it really just as simple as “People who like the death penalty will like me more and vote for me if I get people sentenced to death.”?

That’s the only reason I can think of, since it’s inefficient and expensive. Add in the possibility of error, it seems like it’s just smarter to skip it and go for life without parole. Apart from the above.

Anyone got anything else?

Seems to me like you answered your own question. Although besides votes, prosecutors tend to be hardcore law-and-order types who really support the death penalty. So, it’s probably a combination of actual support and vote pandering.

Perhaps some of them believe in the principle that murderers deserve to die for their crime.

Perhaps they believe in the death penalty.

Incomprehensible state of mind to be in, by my lights, but I understand most people really are in it.

For the most part it is just that selfishly simple.

Is there a concrete example of “prosecutors (who) push for the death penalty”?

Does this imply some prosecutors always demand a death sentence in murder cases? Or is it a condemnation of any and all situations in which a prosecutor might seek the death penalty?

I’m also a bit confused - if as we are told, the death penalty is becoming increasingly unpopular, wouldn’t prosecutors be placing their re-election at risk by supporting it? Another complicating factor is political pushback owing to the expense of seeing through death penalty convictions through appeal after appeal.

Here’s how one prosecutor puts it:

“We don’t seek the death penalty unless the perpetrator is the worst of the worst and proof is not an issue.”

IANAL, but as I understand the adversarial legal system in the US, each side pushes for the largest victory they think they can reasonable achieve in court. Under that arrangement, a prosecutor won’t even bring a case unless he thinks he’s got a fair chance of conviction; if he thinks he’s got a fair chance of achieving a death sentence, then it’s his job to pursue it.

Could it be a bargaining tool? The prosecutor could push for the death penalty in hopes of making the defendant confess or plead guilty and spend the rest of his/her life in prison to avoid trial. (I seem to remember a court case that made this type of bargaining illegal, but IANAL, so it could be just me thinking of a Law and Order episode.)

The reason the death penalty exists in the first place is because people believe it is of benefit to society as a whole. Surely many prosecutors share this belief. The reasons may include a feeling that complete justice has been done, setting a deterrent example, making sure that the particular individual will not repeat the crime, and probably several others.

Keeping people in prison for life is also inefficient and expensive, and is fraught with its own set of problems.

If the state where you are a prosecutor is a death penalty state, likely the constituents where you serve want you use the full punishment legally available. Generally elected officials serve their constituency, the people that elected them.

Pretty sure that is where the majority of the public gets their understanding of the law.

Not really sure what you mean by ‘inefficient’ but expensive? Ignoring the other issues it’s certainly cheaper to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life (not that that should be a reason for doing it…)

Compared to whom?? Who else is gonna push for it, defense attorneys??
Our court system is intentionally adversarial. Prosecution versus defense. There’s an overall tendency for prosecutors to try to get a conviction (duh) on the maximum charges of those available (where they seek lesser charges it’s typically because they think higher charges will not fly, and that they will not prevail), and to ask for the maximum severity of punishment. Because the defense attorney is going to be pushing in the opposite direction at all times on all such issues (except the choice of charges, which the defense has no choice about).


More expensive across the board, from the beginning to the end, including the cost of housing them. look it up

Yup, there’s evidence that caging for life can save the state money.

The one prosecutor I knew well enough to talk with about things like this had this approach or justification: charge the absolute top count possible and let the jury decide the merits. If he charges capital and the jury finds a lesser form of murder, that’s OK. But if he charges lesser forms and it turns out that the total evidence is that this person is a dick who really needs to die he’s basically screwed; he can’t go back and try the case again. Several beers and shots into the evening it made a sort of sense.

Pushing for the death penalty can be an aid in jury selection. If someone says he’ll never vote for the death penalty (because he’s opposed to it as a matter of principle for whatever reason) he can be excused for cause (without using one of the prosecuton’s pre-emptory challenges). And since jurors open to the death penalty are more likely to be prosecution friendly, it’s an easy way to slant the jury into the prosecution’s favor.

I see the prosecutor’s point, especially using the threat of a capital prosecution to leverage a higher plea. However a capital trial, from the outset, proceeds in a different way than a non-capital trial. Sentencing is almost another complete trial in and of itself, and the guilt/innocence phase is set up with the sentencing phase in mind.

Tl;dr, capital trials are hideously expensive and complicated unless you do a bunch of them. I don’t think most D.A.s go forward with capital trials unless they’re committed to seeing them through to completion. But IANAL.

Aside, I find it disingenuous to argue that the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment, when a good deal of the cost of the death penalty is the sheer time of keeping the condemned in isolation, coupled with multiple levels of appeal. With most of those appeals undertaken not to determine if the trial court got the guilt or innocence question right, but for the justice system equivalent of determining ecclesiastical dance parties on sewing implements.

Return capital punishment to the days of determining absolutely that the guy in the dock is the guy who committed the crime, and once that’s done, carrying out the sentence in an expedited manner, and I think you’d find that capital punishment would be quite a bit cheaper. But when it takes 18 years to kill a guy that admits he killed five people, and you have to keep those prisoners all of that time under an extraordinary level of segregation, of course it’s going to be more expensive than ordinary imprisonment.


Another reason is death qualification for the jury.

In a capital trial, the prosecution is permitted to voir dire the veniere as to their position on capital punishment: “Sir, if the prosecution were to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty, could you vote to impose the death penalty?”

A potential juror that says, “No, I don’t believe in the death penalty,” is dismissed for cause.

The resulting jury tends to be much more pro-prosecution than otherwise. The juror that did not believe in the death penalty is often the juror that is inclined to be a little more skeptical of police witnesses, a little more sympathetic to a criminal defendant, etc. So by simply charging capital murder, the prosecutor gets to exclude jury members that are anti-death penalty at no cost to his peremptory challenges.

With the lion’s share of the savings realized by the absence of an infinite set of appeals, petitions, more appeals, injunctions, etc.

So, yeah, the state saves money by ‘caging’ them for life and not seeking the death penalty. But only because the actions and tactics of those opposed to death penalty (in general or for a given [del]victim[/del], er, perp] cause death sentences to be expensive.