Sunday, 1 April 2007

The real capital problem: seeking death on the cheap

The real capital problem: seeking death on the cheap

Though my views on the death penalty are always evolving, I am always sure that many flaws with the modern administration of the death penalty stem from the desire of many jurisdictions to operate a capital system on the cheap. This interesting article from the Los Angeles Times spotlights this reality in the context of Georgia's recent debate over capital defense funding. Here are highlights:

When Georgia instituted a statewide public defender system in 2005, human rights groups praised it as a milestone in ensuring that poor criminal defendants received their constitutional right to a fair trial. Until then, counties determined how indigent people would be represented. In some counties, the courts operated like assembly lines, with defendants pleading guilty after talking with their appointed lawyers for a few minutes.

But some people accuse the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which runs the system, of spending too much time and money on indigent people. One defendant has provoked particular anger: Brian Nichols, the rape suspect accused of escaping from an Atlanta courthouse in 2005 and killing a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a U.S. customs agent. Nichols' defense has cost $1.4 million, and the trial has not begun. Last week, Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller postponed the trial until Sept. 10 because the public defender system had run out of money. Almost all of the council's 75 capital cases are on hold.

The Nichols case did not create the funding crisis. A technical glitch in state law left the council with a shortfall of about $10 million in the state budget. But the Nichols case, as one of the most expensive death penalty trials in Georgia history, has exacerbated concerns about criminal defense spending....

Though many legislators fear the Nichols case could set a precedent for death penalty cases, legal experts say it's a rarity. Fuller, who has appointed four lawyers to the defense and approved more funding for a mental health expert, defends the spending as necessary to ensure a fair trial, noting that the state has charged Nichols with 54 felony counts and appointed five lawyers to the prosecution.

Some defense lawyers say legislators don't complain about prosecution costs. In the Nichols case, experts estimate the prosecution will spend twice as much as the defense. "No one is telling the district attorney he can only spend a certain amount on a death penalty case," West said.

Others say the Nichols case wouldn't cost so much if prosecutors had not sought the death penalty. Paul Howard, Fulton County's district attorney, rejected an offer from Nichols' lawyers for a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. "People who are very concerned about the cost of the defense still believe Nichols should get the death penalty," [Stephen] Bright said. "They can't have it both ways."

Some related posts on the costs of capital cases:

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