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The High Cost of Prosecuting Capital Crimes

As many local governments are discovering, there is a new twist on an old saying: Nothing is certain except the death penalty and higher taxesand the high cost of capital punishment.

Quitman County in Mississippi raised taxes three times in the 1990s and took out a $150,000 loan to pay for the 1990 capital murder trials of two men. Now, the county is having difficulty attracting new businesses because its property taxes are higher than any nearby county.

In July 2001, when Cecil Gurr, a rural Utah police chief, was shot to death after responding to a call about a domestic disturbance, the decision to seek the death penalty was easy. The hard part will be paying for the trial. Tiny Uintah County hopes to avoid raising taxes by spreading the costs over 3 years.

Jasper County in east Texas ran up a huge bill seeking capital murder convictions of three men who were accused of killing James Byrd Jr in 1998 by dragging him behind a pickup truck. The $1.02 million cost to date is expected to go higher even as the county raises property taxes to pay the bills.

The Texas Office of Court Administration estimates the cost of prosecuting a capital crime can run to $300,000. Fees for indigentdefense lawyers, appeals, transcripts, expert witnesses, forensic psychiatrists, and the support staff can easily push the taxpayers' cost to many times that estimate.

Politically ambitious lawmen rarely concern themselves with the cost to taxpayers. As victorious prosecutors move up to larger jurisdictions and more prestigious assignments, they leave the financially ravaged county to pay the costs of their career advancement.

Even Texas' populous Dallas County is now struggling to pay for capital murder trials of the six survivors of the Connally Seven, a group of Texas prison escapees accused of killing a suburban Dallas policeman in December 2000. Governor Rick Perry gave the county $250,000 from a discretionary fund to help with prosecution costs that are expected to go far higher.

Some states have set up deathpenalty risk pools where counties pay in annually and receive funds in the event of a deathpenalty case. Utah created one of the first such pools in 1997 after the legislature got tired of bailing out the counties. It wasn't until after the Cecil Gurr murder that Uintah County recognizedwith 2020 hindsightthat the $21,500 fee to join the risk pool was a good investment.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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