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Trial's high coststax Jasper coffers

Some counties are plunged into financial crisis by pushing for thedeath penalty.

By Robert BryceSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 1999



AUSTIN, TEXAS

Residents of Jasper County are finding that seeking the death penalty in murder cases is not just morally and emotionally wrenching. It is also expensive.

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One defendant, John King, has now been convicted of killing a local black man in a racially motivated attack. If his two codefendants are found guilty as well - and sentenced to death - the costs for their trials and any appeals could spiral into the millions of dollars, to almost one-third of the county's yearly budget.

What did Jasper do to pick up the costs? It had to raise property taxes 8 percent.

For years, small counties nationwide have had to scramble for money when faced with the immense costs of death-penalty cases and their virtually automatic multiple appeals. In some cases, counties have had to slash their budgets. In others, they've decided to seek lesser sentences.

As a result, legislators in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Texas have introduced bills in the past year that would allow their states to help counties pay for expensive murder trials. And in two of the states - Idaho and Texas - the laws are specifically tailored for counties trying death-penalty cases.

Tight arithmetic

For small counties in Texas, the idea of getting financial help from the state is appealing. Allen Amos, a member of the Rural County Judges Association, says the funding bill is "the No. 1 thing on our agenda."

"These capital-murder trials can devastate the budget of a small county," says Mr. Amos, one of 55 judges from small west Texas counties in the association. "If you go to trial with an automatic appeal, you could be looking at $350,000 to $500,000 for each one of these things."

The Texas law, proposed by state Rep. Bob Turner (D), would impose a $5 fee on individuals convicted of felonies, and a $1 fee on individuals convicted of misdemeanors. Those fees could raise an estimated $3.3 million a year, which would then be used to help small counties pay for capital-murder trials.

Representative Turner, a death-penalty proponent, says his bill will relieve budgetary pressures on small counties.

"But probably most important, it's going to lend itself toward meting out a more favorable justice," he says.

He points out that in recent years, several Texas counties have not pursued the death penalty because of the high costs involved. For financially strapped counties, "it's necessary that they drop the capital-murder status and go for a simple conviction," he adds. "So I think it'll serve justice better to have that death-penalty option available - even if they don't use it."

One county's costs

Okanogan County in Washington provides another example of a county in financial crisis. The county is seeking the death penalty for a man accused of killing a local police officer. The trial is expected to cost $675,000.

In an effort to save money for the trial, the county has forbidden its employees from making any non-emergency travel. Pay hikes have been delayed. All capital outlays - including computers and a new transport van for the county sheriff's office - have been put on hold. Four county jobs, including three in the sheriff's department, are being left unfilled.

Jim Weed, the Okanogan County sheriff, says that state law prohibits his county from raising property taxes any further. The county has proposed a 0.1-cent sales-tax hike, but it won't be voted on until November. Even if voters approve the sales tax, the county won't begin receiving the revenue until mid-next year.

"It was the voters' decision to put the death-penalty law into effect," says Mr. Weed. "But there is no funding mechanism to avoid inappropriate impacts on small counties. The result is that it's bankrupting government so it can't carry out the death penalty."

Idaho already has a measure in place to help counties with such problems. It was signed into law last March by former Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican.

"It's like a self-insurance fund that each county in the state pays into," explains Susan Mather, principal legal analyst at the Idaho Legislative Services Office. Once the fund reaches a certain level, all 44 counties in the state will be able to withdraw funds to defray the cost of prosecuting death-penalty cases.

Ms. Mather said the law came about after a small Idaho county spent more than $400,000 to convict a murderer and send him to death row. However, the death sentence was later overturned. Rather than seek the death penalty again and pay thousands of dollars more, county officials sought a life without parole.

Best way to spend money?

County officials in Texas and Idaho support the idea of getting help from the state, but death-penalty opponents say the money will be misspent.

The total cost of executing a convicted murderer in Texas exceeds $2 million when all appeals and incarceration costs are included, notes Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington.

"Is it worth a couple million dollars to get somebody executed versus, say, having 40 more police on the streets or instead of building more prison cells?" asks Mr. Dieter.

Still, many county officials are eager for more cash. The racially charged nature of the Jasper case has meant that the county has had to remodel its courthouse and grounds to meet media and security needs. Total cost: $343,000. Jasper County Auditor Jonetta Nash says these costs are "quite a strain" for her county.

Any appeals of possible death sentences could make the cases several times more expensive.

Despite the financial strain, Ms. Nash is pleased that county prosecutors are being aggressive. "If any situation deserves the death penalty, this one does."