Trial Proceedings: Length and CostTrial Proceedings: Length and Cost. When a death penalty notice is filed, trial court judges, attorneys, and court administrators treat the proceedings with "kid gloves." The specter of appellate reversal constantly hangs over the case, so that every decision and choice made during trial proceedings is meticulously evaluated. Grounds for reversal have included the shackling of the defendant during the sentencing phase of the trial court proceedings in the Finch case, the disclosure of part of the defendant's criminal record to the jury by a juror in the Jeffries case, and the fact that the defendant was not present during part of the sentencing phase in the Rice case. One result of the court's strong desire to avoid error is that death penalty cases at the trial level are far more expensive and lengthy than ordinary aggravated murder cases.
In contrast to other felony proceedings, death penalty trials are required to consist of two separate phases: a guilt phase and a sentencing phase. In other types of cases, upon a jury verdict of guilty, the judge, not the jury, ordinarily sentences the defendant, at a hearing that usually lasts less than one day. Death penalty sentences must be decided by a jury. In terms of length of the proceedings and the complexity of the issues, death penalty sentencing hearings generally are far more substantial than other felony sentencing hearings and are akin to full jury trials. For example, in State v. Marshall, a recent Pierce County case, the defendant pleaded guilty and therefore was convicted without a trial, but his mandatory jury sentencing hearing lasted several weeks. Mandatory considerations at a capital sentencing hearing are whether the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt, considering the circumstances, that there are insufficient mitigating circumstance to merit leniency, considering specific statutorily enumerated factors.
An example of the cost and length of trial level death penalty proceedings is Okanogan County's State v. Gonzalez, a case in which the defendant was charged with aggravated murder for the slaying of a law enforcement officer on April 2, 1998. On the basis that the cost of this case, originally charged as a death penalty aggravated murder case, had the potential to devastate Okanogan County's budget, the 1999 Legislature appropriated up to $1.2 million for county reimbursement. By November 1999, the costs of State v. Gonzalez were $481,576. A competency hearing held late in 1999 revealed that the defendant was not competent to form the premeditated intent required for aggravated murder, and the death penalty notice was dropped. A jury trial was held from January 10 to early February, resulting in a conviction of aggravated murder. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole, as well as additional sentences for related convictions. The total bill for the case has not yet been determined.
Another current example of trial level death penalty costs is State v. Rupe, which was remanded for resentencing to Thurston County Superior Court pursuant to a federal district court opinion in 1994, affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996. The Thurston County prosecutor's office and Rupe's defense attorneys have actively prepared for the resentencing hearing since 1997. Multiple motions have been filed and argued. To date, Thurston County has spent almost one million dollars on Rupe's resentencing. If Rupe is resentenced to death, he may appeal and would be entitled to obtain a full state and federal appellate review process at public expense.
The following table, reflecting those 1997-1999 aggravated murder cases detailed by various counties in documents filed pursuant to the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Act, illustrates the additional trial level time required and costs incurred when a death penalty notice is filed in an aggravated murder case. These costs include prosecutor time, defense attorney time, investigation costs, pre-trial jail costs, expert witness costs, and so forth. This table includes only aggravated murder cases claimed by counties, and therefore is not entirely comprehensive as it does not include unclaimed cases. It does, however, provide an opportunity to examine the length, cost, and outcome of 25 recent aggravated murder cases.
In King County Superior Court, four aggravated murder cases involving the death penalty took an average of 40.25 months to decide. Three of the death penalty notice defendants were convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life without parole. One defendant was sentenced to death. The average cost of the four death penalty notice cases was $433,262.
In Pierce County Superior Court, three aggravated murder cases involving the death penalty took an average of 28.3 months to resolve. All of the defendants were convicted of aggravated murder; none was sentenced to death, and all were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The average cost to the county of the three death penalty notice cases was $343,170.
In Kitsap County Superior Court, two trial level aggravated murder cases without death penalty notices took an average of 9.5 months to resolve. One defendant was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The other was convicted of another crime and received a lesser sentence. The average cost of the two cases was $73,643.
In Cowlitz County Superior Court, one aggravated murder case involving the death penalty took 25 months to resolve. The defendant pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The cost of the case was $346,882.
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