Saturday, December 13, 2008

Another Body Blow to the Death Penalty

For my 200th post, I get to post good news. The other day, I posted about the Death Penalty Information Center's report that both executions and new death sentences have decreased in the past few years, reaching lows not seen in over a decade. Yesterday brought one more piece of anecdotal evidence to show that the death penalty is falling out of favor.

Brian Nichols was in court facing a rape charge when he shot and killed a judge, court, reporter and sheriff's deputy, then fled the scene and killed a federal agent before taking a woman hostage. That hostage situation lasted several hours before ending remarkably peacefully. (On a side note, the way that woman handled herself and him is remarkable as she came out of the situation with nary a scratch. And she got him to be taken into custody without any more shots being fired.)

The Nichols case has been pending for several years, repeatedly making the news for the astronomical costs of the case. Defense attorneys have been relentless in seeking the money they needed to adequately defend their client's life. There was never any question of contesting whether Nichols was the shooter. Instead, this case was always about mitigation: what was the appropriate sentence? One judge had to be recused from the case after publicly expressing frustration with the defense because there was no defense here. Well, we can't really blame the defense for the case going to trial, though. (Not that any defendant should be precluded from holding the state to its burden at a trial, but that's not the point today.) Nichols had offered to plead to the murders and be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in exchange for the state dropping pursuit of the death penalty. The state refused. So who is really to blame for the costs here?

This article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution talks about how much the defense of Brian Nichols cost. The costs of defending Nichols almost brought to an end the state-wide public defender system that Georgia had only created in the past few years. (I'm not finding the exact year, but it was definitely created after 2000.) By late 2007, the state's legislature was refusing to fund the indigent defense system fully, forcing the system to slash 41 full-time jobs. Cases throughout the state, especially about a dozen capital cases, face delays because of the defender system's lack of money. Defenders need money to pay for evidence testing, track down witnesses, etc. And of course the attorneys actually need to be paid a little something, too, so they can eat and pay the rent. Apparently, though, the Georgia legislature thinks it's outrageous when public defenders defend their clients too zealously (or eat or pay rent).

But I don't recall ever seeing any article question the cost of the prosecution. I would like to see an accounting of the state's costs on that side, because generally the prosecution side has more to spend. If the defense cost $2 to $3 million, surely the prosecution cost at least $3. I guess any money spent trying to execute a scumbag is money well spent, but any money to defend the guy against state-sanctioned murder (even if equal to or less than the cost of the prosecution) is just a waste of taxpayer dollars. But if the state had just accepted Nichols' offer to plead guilty and accept a sentence of life without parole (the exact result the trial rendered), the state of Georgia would have been saved a huge chunk of money on both sides. No witness fees, no jury fees, no court personnel occupied for 7 weeks as the trial progressed. All of those prosecutors and police and defense attorneys who dedicated 7 weeks of their time to the trial itself (not to mention the hundreds of hours that went into the prep) could have been working on other cases. All those man hours translate directly into taxpayer money.

I say Friday's verdict vindicates every single penny the defense spent. There were really only two outcomes for this case: death or life. So the defense won all they really hoped to win. A big cheers to the hard-working attorneys whose only goal was to keep their client alive. Well done!

The state, meanwhile, ought to take a good, hard look at itself. And the people of Georgia who are upset about the costs of this case ought to question the wisdom of the state's rejection of the plea offer. Did they really think they should just be allowed to kill Nichols without any resistance? Did they really think they should just be allowed to put on their side of the trial and have nothing presented by the defense? Of course defense attorneys are going to challenge a death sentence. Of course they're going to put on a case for mitigation, and it won't just be a quick case for show. They're going to do their absolute best to try and convince a jury to spare their clients' lives. And judging by the recent trends, those dedicated defenders seem to be succeeding. If juries really do start returning fewer and fewer death verdicts, that will just add more pressure to the state not to pursue it, especially if the defendant volunteers to take life without parole.

I'm sure yesterday's verdict isn't the death knell for the death penalty, but it is another chink in the system. I think most people would have assumed that a man who shot up a courthouse, killing a judge and a sheriff's deputy, and then killed a federal agent in an escape attempt would have been sentenced to death. But this jury said otherwise. And the entire country can see how much it cost just to get to the point of a jury declining execution. And we can all see that this exact result was offered to the state many hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars ago. So I do think this is very encouraging news for those of us in the abolition movement.

Now if only we could get the public up in arms about how much money the state wastes by pursuing the death penalty instead of only thinking about it in terms of those damned defense fees.


Mhoram said...

And, of course, the Atlanta District Attorney is whining that he did not get a fair trial because there were jurors who would not be swayed to voting for death.

I absolutely guarantee that there were at least 3 people on that jury who had decided - prior to the first witness being called - that they were going to vote for death.

Now, the state is trying to get the US Attorney to prosecute Nichols in federal court to get a second bite at the death penalty apple.

S said...

I saw that headline, but hadn't had time yet to read it.

Of course there were automatic death jurors on the juror. Those jurors have a much easier time qualifying because they can say they'd "consider" mitigators. But they'd consider mitigators in the same way I'd consider aggravators. I'd follow the law, determine whether the state had proven its aggravators, but there would be no case in which mercy wouldn't outweigh those aggravators.

It seems only fair to me that a few automatic lifers made it on to this jury since automatic deathers make it all the time.

Unknown said...

"death knell for the death penalty," I like that.

I enjoyed your point that the prosecution's costs are never questioned.

SaucyVixen said...

All sorts of stuff about prosecutors are never questioned.

The PJ where I used to work once held a meeting with the defense bar. The jail was too crowded; we needed to settle our cases sooner.

Well! Too bad that all the judges in pre-trial session totally sucked. In that system, it was better to set a trial date and plea on the eve of trial, just to get a halfway decent judge (this is an a system were the defendant places the cap on the plea -- don't even ask -- we're all sorts of crazy up North).

I pointed out that the crowding in the jails would be lessened if the prosecution asked for and the judges imposed little or no bail for dumb cases.

That did not go over well at all, yet *we* were expected to plea our cases early for *their* convenience. Riiiight.

Same principle as the cost issue, just a different area.

S said...

it's really disheartening when even judges look exclusively to us to solve any budget or jail crowding or full docket issues. Maybe you should start looking at the side that actually controls case volume!

I'm still astounded every time I realize that prosecutors and judges all seem to think that prosecutors are somehow entitled to some kind of guilty verdict on every single case just because they filed charges. Like we're the problem for fighting unjust charges.

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