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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Potential death penalty for Renfro may trigger decades of costly appeals

Jonathan Renfro at the Kootenai County Courthose in Coeur d'Alene on Monday,Sept. 11, 2017. He has been convicted of murder in connection with the shooting death of Coeur dAlene Police Sgt. Greg Moore on May 5, 2015; a jury will decide next week if he faces life in prison or the death penalty. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

If a jury decides this week that Jonathan D. Renfro should receive the death penalty for killing Coeur d’Alene police Sgt. Greg Moore, many of the jurors may never see their sentence carried out.

If history holds true, six corrections officers more than 20 years from now would walk Renfro into a room to strap him to an execution table. They would wear surgical masks and goggles to hide their identities.

One of them would insert an intravenous line to inject a lethal concoction of drugs. They also would place an electrode on Renfro’s chest to confirm his passing.

And in the meantime, the 29-year-old convicted killer’s prosecution and appeals would have cost Idaho taxpayers much more than if the state had sent him to a prison cell, to reside 23 hours a day until the moment of his inevitable end.

“The cost is prohibitive,” said Andrea George, executive director of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho. “The average citizen doesn’t understand the complexity of death penalty litigation.”

A law enforcement source, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of those involved with the case, told The Spokesman-Review last week that Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh predicted the cost of Renfro’s trial will exceed $1 million. Defense attorneys had offered to have Renfro plead guilty to the May 5, 2015, killing and receive life in prison to avoid the death penalty, but McHugh refused under pressure from Moore’s loved ones and law enforcement.

None of the prosecutors or defense attorneys has been willing to discuss any aspect of the case after 1st District Judge Lansing Haynes placed them under a gag order prior to the start of the Sept. 11 trial.

Legal hurdles

just beginning

If the jury decides death for Renfro, he would join seven convicted men and one woman on Idaho’s death row.

Gem State prison officials last executed an inmate, Richard A. Leavitt, in 2012. He was convicted in 1984 of killing Danette Elg, of Blackfoot.

Leavitt was only the third inmate executed in Idaho since 1957. His appeals took almost a quarter-century to exhaust.

George said Renfro potentially could appeal his death sentence directly to the Idaho Supreme Court. If that body upholds the death penalty, Renfro then could appeal it to federal court, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and finally seek to have his case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state would have to pay for prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout. Family members may be forced to relive the killing time and time again until the case winds its way through the courts, she said.

“If it ever made it to the death penalty, it would be the ‘Eye for an eye,’ ” she said. “But it will cost a hell of a lot of money and put stress on the victims and the victim’s family.”

The alternative, life in prison, would force the family to face the killer only once, at sentencing. “Not to mention life in prison in a maximum-security facility is not a pleasant way to spend your days,” George said.

Legacy of death penalty

Earlier this month, Renfro was convicted of firing a stolen gun at Moore, striking the officer in the mouth after Moore encountered the convicted felon just after midnight on a residential street.

The last time Kootenai County residents endured a similar crime was in June 1998, when Scott D. Yager ambushed Idaho State Police Trooper Linda Huff.

Yager waited outside the ISP office in Hayden and opened fire near midnight, striking Huff a dozen times. She was able to radio for help and return fire until her gun was damaged. Huff hit Yager twice before dying from her injuries.

A jury convicted Yager in 1999 and then-Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas sought to reverse now-retired 1st District Judge James Judd’s life sentence and reinstate the death penalty. The Idaho Supreme Court later determined that Judd’s ruling was “reasonable.”

Six years later, the death penalty again came into play for arguably the worst killer to come through North Idaho: Joseph E. Duncan.

A jury sentenced Duncan to consecutive life sentences after he was convicted of killing three people with a claw hammer in 2005 after driving by on Interstate 90 and seeing two small children in swimming suits playing in the yard.

Federal authorities prosecuted Duncan for abducting Shasta and Dylan Groene, whom Duncan tortured before killing the 9-year-old boy near a campsite in Montana. A federal jury sentenced Duncan to death in 2008.

Duncan is one of 61 people on federal death row. Only three federally convicted killers have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988. The last federal inmate put to death was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, in 2001.

A study by the Idaho Legislature in 2014 showed that the cost of death penalty cases far outweighed the price of other murder investigations. Part of that expense came from state guidelines that require two certified defense attorneys to represent each death-penalty suspect, and the cost of appeals.

“At least three recent studies have found very few eligible defendants were sentenced to death, a large percentage of death sentences were overturned or reversed, defendants were dying in prison with pending appeals, and only a small number of executions actually took place,” the study said.

George noted that the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., listed some 160 cases nationally where convicts on death row were either exonerated, had their charges dismissed by prosecutors or judges, or were granted a pardon based on evidence of innocence.

Although it directly leads to the higher costs of litigation, the rounds of legal challenges serve a purpose, George said.

“You can’t eliminate the layers of appeals. They are the safety net of the permanency of the sentence,” she said. “There is nothing more immoral than the state putting an innocent person to death.”