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Local Taxpayers Face Higher Taxes, Crime Rates Due to Death Penalty Trials

by Dale Chappell

Taxpayers in Texas counties where death penalty cases are held get hit with a double whammy: Not only do they face higher property taxes to pay for the trials, they also have to deal with increased crime rates after public safety spending is reduced to offset those costs.

A study conducted by researchers at West Virginia University found that Texas counties bear additional judicial expenses averaging $1.4 million over the two years leading up to the conclusion of a death penalty trial – the cost of which is covered by an average increase in property taxes of two percent a year while the case is pending.

However, the same counties also reduce public safety spending an average of $2.8 million for the two years leading up to a death penalty trial, in order to offset its costs – resulting in an increase in crime rates in the counties where such trials are held.

As an example, the study cited an eight percent hike in property taxes in Jasper County, Texas to fund a death penalty trial for John William King, the last of three white supremacists convicted of capital murder for the grisly 1998 dragging death of an African-American neighbor, 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr. King was executed in April 2019 at age 44.

The study also pointed to reduced public safety spending in another Texas county during a death penalty trial that caused property crime rates to climb about 1.5 percent over the period during which the trial proceeded.

Capital murder trials are more expensive than other types of trials, requiring at least two attorneys on each side, extensive investigations, lengthy jury selection and numerous expert witnesses, along with additional security measures. While the state of Texas covers some of the expenses, such as automatic appeals and housing prisoners sentenced to death, the bulk of the costs fall on the county where the trial is held – which then gets passed on to local taxpayers.

By shifting more expenses to the state, “counties would no longer face stark tradeoffs in trials, taxes, and public expenditures,” suggested Alex Lundberg, a professor of economics at West Virginia University who conducted the study.

The National Right to Counsel Committee also supports statewide cost sharing of capital murder trials in order to provide effective representation to indigent defendants. Over 50 percent of indigent defense expenses incurred in all types of trials fall on the counties where they are held.

“A shift in the financial burden from counties to the state may improve the quality of indigent defense, which is frequently poor,” Professor Lundberg agreed.

Given the way death penalty trials are currently conducted in Texas, taxpayers face both higher taxes and higher crime rates in order to fund a small number of executions, the study concluded.

In Utah, a 2012 analysis conducted for the state legislature estimated the cost of a capital murder trial was $1.6 million higher than the cost of a murder trial seeking a sentence of life without parole. A statewide cost-sharing arrangement was set up that required each county to pay $300,000 to establish a capital murder trial fund.

Five of the state’s 29 counties opted out of the fund, including Weber County, which is Utah’s fourth-largest by population and includes the city of Ogden. With two capital murder trials pending as of April 2019, and a third capital murder conviction under judicial review, the county is facing legal bills so large that it may have to cut its budget for parks and roads, according to County Commissioner Greg Froerer, a former member of the state legislature who sponsored a failed measure to abolish the state’s death penalty.

“That was one of my concerns and major issues is the cost involved,” Froerer said, “and the results usually aren’t very productive in solving the issues for society or the victim’s family.”

In fact, a 2018 study reported by the Salt Lake Tribune found that state and county taxpayers in Utah had spent about $40 million over the prior 20 years to prosecute 165 capital murder cases, only two of which resulted in death sentences.

In an attempt to stem the flow of red ink, Weber County has placed a $100,000 cap on each of a pair of defense attorney’s contracts in the capital murder trials of Miller Costello and Brenda Emile for killing their three-year-old daughter. The county has spent another $370,000 on legal costs since the 2011 reversal of Douglas Lovell’s capital murder conviction.

Lovell, now 61, was charged with the 1985 murder of Joyce Yost to prevent her from testifying against him in his pending trial for raping her. In 1993, Lovell agreed to plead guilty to a non-capital homicide charge in exchange for leading authorities to Yost’s body. But the body was never found, so Lovell was sentenced to death. He then attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, which the state Supreme Court ultimately allowed him to do in 2011.

In 2015, Lovell was retried and convicted of capital murder in Yost’s killing. The case went to automatic appeal, where the county capped fees for defense attorney Samuel Newton at $15,000. Newton publicly criticized that limit, and the county terminated its contract with him. Now Lovell is defended by a new lawyer who is seeking to overturn his conviction based on the failure of the trial attorney, Sean Young, to call 16 of 18 potential witnesses whose testimony could have mitigated Lovell’s death sentence. Young has since been suspended from practicing law for mishandling cases, included Lovell’s.

And as the appeals progress, so do the costs that local taxpayers must pay. 

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Sources: deathpenaltyinfo.org, standard.net