While many states are trading the death penalty for life sentences to save millions in tax dollars, the Utah Attorney General's Office is pushing to strengthen the state's ultimate punishment by limiting the appeals process.
"No one gets executed unless they volunteer for it," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general's office, about Utah's decades-long appeal process. "It's a legal fiction," he said wryly.
The last person Utah executed, Joseph Mitchell Parsons in 1999, waited on death row for only 11 years. But about half of Utah's current 10 death-row inmates have successfully appealed their respective executions for more than 20 years.
That's apparently a few years too long for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who loudly supported a recent failed resolution to amend the Utah Constitution to limit appeals.
"We could realistically shave off at least five years of litigations and maybe more," said Tom Brunker, Utah's capital case coordinator in the Utah Attorney General's Office.
But considering how funds are divvied for capital cases, whittling off a few years from a person's prison time won't save state taxpayers much money compared with what they've already likely spent throughout the lengthy appeals process.
Capital prosecutors, like Brunker and his specialized legal team, will still receive their near-six-digit salary no matter how many — or few — criminals are convicted to die. And the state Legislature will still dole out a one-time approximate $80,000 to each convicted killer for court fees, as long as the sentence remains.
But $80,000 is at least $1 million short of what's traditionally needed for proper legal representation, according to Kent Hart, assistant federal defender with the Capital Habeas Unit of the Utah Federal Defender Office — essentially a public defender for death-row inmates.
Hart says he opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but he's stunned that taxpayers would pay more — sometimes millions of dollars more — to execute someone when they could simply tuck them away for life for half the cost.
"Spending the rest of your life (in prison) is a much worse punishment anyway," Hart said.
Utah has not yet undertaken a comprehensive study that compares the total cost of a death sentence — from the slam of the gavel to a potassium chloride-filled syringe — with that of a simple life sentence. However, many states have, and most have seen broad differences between the price tags.
Some states have ignored possible savings on the count of a sense of moral responsibility, while other more bottom-line-minded states — like New Mexico two months ago — dumped the costly practice.
Warehousing a murderer for the rest of his or her life is expensive, too, but a Duke University study found that North Carolina is paying $2.16 million more to execute a man than cage him for life; Florida would save $51 million a year by putting down its needle; and even hang-'em-high Texas, which has already executed 14 people in 2009, spends about three times more executing inmates than keeping them until age takes them, according to a report by the Dallas Morning News.
A similar study for possible savings in Utah may never be compiled, Hart said, because capital punishments make for such good political traction here.
"Politicians get a lot of mileage out of them," Hart said matter-of-factly.
But if Utah did compile one, it may include a few common numbers, which the Deseret News ultimately acquired through the Government Records Access and Management Act.
A 2006 report by the state Department of Corrections said Utah paid more than $45,000 in 1,580 man hours for the final two months of Parsons' life. A 14-member team met weekly, hired executioners and rehearsed every last step. But that was just the actual execution cost.
The execution summary also noted that each death-row inmate costs 15 percent to 25 percent more to house than "average" inmates. But Utah State Prison spokeswoman Angie Welling told the Deseret News last week there is no difference between housing the two types of inmates — even though death-row inmates are housed in a maximum-security unit.
"It's just the roof over their head with the same security," Welling said. "They all cost $29,000 (annually)."
However, according to the Department of Corrections report, "it is common knowledge that to try, house and execute an offender costs as much as three times what it costs to house an offender for an average life term."
So if the average murderer, age 29, sits in prison for life at presumed $29,000-a-year rate until the average age of 76, he will have cost taxpayers about $3.24 million, compounded with a 3 percent inflation rate.
But the math quickly gets fuzzy, even admittedly for attorneys Brunker and Hart, when one attempts to tally up the varying expenses charged while waging a 10- to 20-year war in state and federal courts.
Contributing: Sara Israelsen-Hartley. E-MAIL: [email protected]