January 25, 2008

Killing time: Dead men waiting on Oregon's death row

Today's Willamette Week of Portland, Oregon has a hard-hitting expose of capital punishment in that northwestern mecca, complete with an interactive display of the 35 men on death row. Here are excerpts; the complete story is here.

. . . Whether you’re for or against capital punishment, you should be outraged by what's happening. To please the tough-on-crime crowd, we keep the death penalty. But to appease progressives, or to assuage our own conscience, nobody actually gets killed. . . .

Yet for the most part, this shameful situation stays hidden. Death row is tucked away on the third floor of a building deep inside the Oregon State Penitentiary. The rarely used execution chamber is behind locked doors in the same prison. And no executions means no front-page headlines.

"A lot of people aren’t even aware that we have a death penalty here," says Rachel Hardesty, a Portland State University criminal justice professor who has spent a decade studying capital punishment in Oregon. . . .

Nationwide, experts say capital cases are 20 times more expensive to prosecute because of the length of appeals. Oregon officials don't make guesses about how much it will cost here, because after 24 years of letting juries sentence killers to death, not a single case has yet gone all the way through the appeals system.

But Bill Long, a Willamette University law professor and death penalty opponent who wrote the only book on capital punishment in Oregon, has estimated Oregon's oldest cases could end up costing more than $10 million per defendant (the national average for capital cases is around $3 million). . . . Added up for all 35 capital-punishment cases, that totals $35.7 million in public-safety money. . . .

Meanwhile, there are about 50 more defendants currently charged with death penalty crimes in Oregon, which will suck more than $50 million more out of the state budget if the defendants are sentenced to death. Despite the expense, they may never see execution. Nationwide, only 12 percent of people who are sentenced to death are actually executed.

That leaves even death penalty proponents questioning whether the cost is worth it.
Hat tip: Sentencing Law & Policy