HIGH COST OF DEATH

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North Carolina’s death penalty costs millions of dollars each year, even while executions are stalled. A majority of North Carolinians say its high cost is not a good use of tax money.

In 2009, Duke University completed the first rigorous study on the costs of the death penalty in North Carolina. It found that death penalty prosecutions cost the state at least $11 million a year, despite the fact that no one has been executed since 2006.

Most of the money spent on the death penalty is wasted because executions are only rarely carried out. Of more than 450 people who have been sentenced to death in North Carolina since modern death penalty laws were enacted in 1976, only 43 — less than 10 percent — were executed.

The study’s cost estimate was conservative. It included:

  • Extra defense costs for capital cases, which require two attorneys paid at higher rates as well as a team of experts and investigators. On average, defending a capital case costs four times as much as a first-degree murder trial in which the defendant faces a maximum of life imprisonment.
  • Extra payments to jurors in capital trials, which typically last weeks longer than non-capital ones.
  • The expense of appeals and resentencing hearings, which are far more numerous in capital trials because of the high stakes of making a mistake.
  • The costs to prisons, which must house death-sentenced prisoners in special units with extra security, sometimes for decades.

The study’s estimate did not include prosecution costs, despite the fact that death penalty cases can eat up hundreds of hours in state-funded district attorney’s offices and law enforcement agencies. It also did not include additional costs to pay court reporters and other personnel, or the expense of additional appeals in state and federal court.

North Carolina continues to invest in the death penalty, despite the public’s growing discomfort with it. Death sentences have become rare occurrences, and polls show declining support for the punishment.

A 2013 poll showed that 68 percent of North Carolinians would support replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole if offenders were required to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. A clear majority also favored redirecting taxpayer funds spent on the death penalty to crime fighting, solving cold cases, and assisting crime victims.

For as long as the death penalty exists, the high costs will continue. Given that nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death in North Carolina, it’s clear that a strong defense and extensive appeals are necessary to avoid executing an innocent person.