Make no mistake: the choice to pay for the death penalty is a choice not to pay for other public goods like roads, schools, parks, public works, emergency services, public transportation, and law enforcement.
So we need to ask whether the death penalty is worth what we are sacrificing to maintain it.
Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr., Wiles v. Bagley
The North Carolina death penalty costs millions of dollars each year, even while executions are on hold. A majority of N.C. voters say the death penalty is not worth the costs to taxpayers.
In 2009, Duke University completed the first rigorous study on the costs of the North Carolina death penalty. It found that death penalty prosecutions cost North Carolina at least $11 million a year, despite the fact that no one has been executed since 2006. A 2017 study in Oklahoma by several criminologists found that on average, each death sentence costs taxpayers $700,000 more than life imprisonment.
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 North Carolina death penalty cases, which require two attorneys paid at higher rates as well as a team of experts and investigators. On average, defending a N.C. death penalty 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 costs of appeals and resentencing hearings, which are far more numerous in death penalty 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 of North Carolina death penalty costs did not include prosecution, despite the fact that death penalty cases 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 pay the high costs of 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.