NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

THE HIGH PRICE OF DEFENDING KILLERS

January 29, 2008

At the heart of the debate over how much to spend on the legal defense of alleged killers, lies a paradox, says Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker.  When the evidence is incontrovertible and the crime heinous, the cost of defending the alleged culprit is usually higher.

For example:

  • When it is fairly obvious the defendant committed a capital crime, the defense team is required to search for any mitigating factor that might convince a jury that the defendant's life be spared, which essentially means spending money on experts such as forensic psychiatrists. 
  • A 2003 Supreme Court decision extended the search for mitigating factors to a defendant's early life, making it more or less mandatory for defense teams to compile expensive mini-biographies of clients.

It isn't clear how to keep such costs down:

  • Some states cap the legal fees that can be spent on death-penalty cases; Florida sets its cap at $15,000 and South Carolina and Oklahoma at $25,000.
  • But spending on experts, which isn't subject to those limits, often push the total cost in those states to six figures.

The costs can be enough to derail a trial entirely, as is the case with the Georgia trial of Brian Nichols who, in 2005, shot a judge and a court reporter in a courtroom while making an escape; he then killed two more people, stealing cars and taking a hostage.

More than two years later, the cost of paying for experts has played a large role in exhausting the funds of the Georgia agency charged with covering the defense of death-penalty defendants.

  • It has already paid $1.2 million so far in legal fees and expert bills.
  • With Nichols's legal team refusing to go on without further payment, jury selection hasn't even been completed.

Source: Robin Moroney, "The High Price of Defending Killers," Wall Street Journal,  January 28, 2008, and Jeffrey Toobin, "Death In Georgia: The high price of trying to save an infamous killer's life," New Yorker, February 4, 2008.

For WSJ text:

http://blogs.wsj.com/informedreader/2008/01/28/the-high-price-of-defending-killers/ 

For New Yorker text:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/02/04/080204fa_fact_toobin 

 

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