November 3, 2009 in Opinion

Death penalty cases costly; instead, seek life sentences

 

Stevens County is balking at accepting the death penalty case of Christopher H. Devlin, because of the enormous costs associated with mounting such cases. It’s a valid concern, because the county is already facing a $1.2 million deficit.

“I have no doubt that the defense cost of Mr. Devlin and the costs to prosecute this case would be a serious blow to the solvency of Stevens County,” county prosecuting attorney Tim Rasmussen told The Spokesman-Review. He noted that a similar case cost Okanogan County $750,000.

While cost shouldn’t be the only concern in prosecutions, it’s become clear that a death penalty charge imposes a financial burden that isn’t worth it. That’s also true of larger counties, especially as they try to dig themselves out of deep budgetary holes. It can mean more pressure to reach plea agreements in other cases or employee layoffs or cutbacks in service.

The Devlin case was investigated by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and the death penalty charge was brought by Spokane County, because the body of Daniel D. Heily was found near Deer Park. But investigators have since heard from a co-defendant who says the killing took place in Stevens County.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque ruled last month that because the crimes took place in two counties, the defendant could decide where to mount a defense. Devlin chose Stevens County.

Rasmussen contends that the judge wants Spokane County to prosecute the case with a Stevens County jury. He says Spokane County should pick up the tab. Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Dale Nagy says his interpretation is that the entire case – costs included – shifts to Stevens County.

This financial hot potato shows why it is a wiser course to seek life sentences, with no possibility of parole, for defendants like Devlin. Despite popular misconception, it is cheaper to imprison and feed a “lifer” than it is seek an execution. Once such a conviction is obtained, a series of lengthy appeals will begin. Many more death row inmates die of natural causes than executions, but the delays are necessary because of the irreversible nature of the punishment.

Spokane County dodged a bill of $1 million or more when it decided against the death penalty for convicted serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. The same is true with Kootenai County in the case of Joseph Duncan.

We certainly do not weep for these killers, and if Devlin is guilty, we have no sympathy for him. But they will die in prison. Hastening that day just isn’t worth it.

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