Monday, 29 October 2007

Missing data hinders death penalty study

Tenn. lacks system to keep track of costs

By Kristin M. Hall
Associated Press Writer

Monday, October 29, 2007

NASHVILLE -- State officials studying capital punishment in Tennessee say they can't figure out the overall cost of the death penalty because there's no comprehensive system for tracking costs.

Furthermore, a study of capital punishment cases in Tennessee since 1977 shows that nearly a quarter have files missing. These files are used by higher courts to judge the fairness and proportionality of how the death penalty is applied in first-degree murder cases.

The administrative director for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, Elizabeth Sykes, will appear before lawmakers and others studying the death penalty this week to address criticism regarding the lack of records and missing files.

"It's going to be very difficult for this committee to accurately suggest meaningful legislation and change within the system unless we have statistics, unless we know what is actually happening," said state Sen. Douglas Jackson, a co-chair on the death penalty study committee that met for the first time this month.

The only comprehensive state review of the death penalty lacks essential information, such as the amount of time prosecutors and judges spend on these cases. Other records are fraught with errors, said Douglas Wright, assistant director of the Comptroller's Office of Research and Education Accountability.

"One of the things we found was it was almost impossible to compile this into a total cost," Wright said.
Wright said the study in 2004 could not determine the overall cost of a death penalty case, including appeals, because of inadequate information.

"We found inconsistencies in the Administrative Office of the Courts data and Department of Corrections data and data from local clerks, including people that were missing from our sample, inconsistent spelling of names, inaccurate or missing dates of birth and inaccurate or missing sentence types," he said.

Former Attorney General Paul Summers said he didn't think that knowing the cost of executions would have much impact on public support of the death penalty.
"I think people feel the death penalty is retributive and worth whatever it costs," Summers said. "Policy makers may feel different."

The Administrative Office of the Courts compiles the status of death penalty cases in a monthly report and the chief justice can inquire into cases that have been pending for an extended period in state trial or appellate courts.
One of the most comprehensive studies of the state's death penalty system came from the Tennessee Justice Project, an organization that advocates for reforms to the criminal justice system, but says it has no position on capital punishment.

Brad MacLean, assistant director of the organization and attorney for death row inmates Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman and Paul Dennis Reid, said their study showed that many cases are missing forms that are vital for higher courts like the Tennessee Supreme Court to weigh the fairness of the application of the death penalty.

Trial judges fill out forms that detail the basic facts including details of the crime, aggravating factors and personal histories of the defendants and victims. The forms, called Rule 12 forms, are used in all first-degree murder cases regardless of whether the state is seeking the death penalty. Of the 207 death penalty cases between 1977 and 2005, 23 percent had missing forms, according to the study by the Tennessee Justice Project.

"The purpose of the Rule 12 forms is to enable the Supreme Court on direct appeal to conduct a proportionality review, to compare the facts and circumstances of this particular case with the facts and circumstances of other first-degree murder cases," MacLean said.

After glancing through a list of missing files, Jackson asked MacLean how the Supreme Court is reviewing for fairness without those forms.
"My opinion is they cannot do it effectively, properly, accurately or reliably," he replied.

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