SALEM, Ore. -- Cases with death sentences in Oregon, on average, cost more than double — and as much as $1 million more — than aggravated murder cases with life sentences, according to a new study.
The study's researchers calculated the average aggravated murder case with the death penalty cost an average of $1.39 million, even without corrections costs. In contrast, the same type of case with life in prison cost an average of $334,522.
The Oregon Death Penalty Cost Analysis report was funded by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based nonprofit, and written by Professor Aliza Kaplan from Lewis & Clark Law School, Professor Peter Collins from Seattle University, Seattle, Washington, and law student Venetia Mayhew. Researchers collection information on hundreds of aggravated murder cases from 2000 to 2013.
"This report confirms what many had long suspected about the cost of Oregon's death penalty, but the actual figures are staggering," said Alice Lundell, the center's spokeswoman. "We're spending four times more on death penalty cases than on comparable cases without death sentences despite having only executed two people since Kennedy was president."
Sixty-three people have been sentenced to death in Oregon since the state brought back the death penalty in 1984. Of those, two people voluntarily gave up appeals and were executed, four people died of natural causes while on death row and 22 people had their sentences reduced, according to the report.
With the recent sentencing of David Bartol, 45, for the jail stabbing of another inmate, 35 people will now be on death row. All potential executions have been subject to a moratorium put in place in 2011 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. After taking office, current Gov. Kate Brown upheld the moratorium and made her personal opposition to the death penalty clear. Brown recently re-affirmed the moratorium.
Support for capital punishment has fallen in recent decades, but more Americans support the death penalty than oppose it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Pew also noted that the number of executions — and the number of states conducting those executions — have fallen sharply since peaking in 1999. Thirty-one states have the death penalty. Oregon, along with three other states, have a moratorium on executions.
Prosecuting aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by death in Oregon, is already a "complicated and time-consuming" process, the report said, but tacking on the possibility of the death penalty drove up the amount of time and money spent on cases.
The study's authors noted a gap in available information about the costs behind aggravated murder cases. Specific information from courts and local prosecutors about the amount of time and money spent on cases was often unavailable.
Special defense lawyers are required, defense filings double, prosecutorial filings triple and defendants spend more time in expensive, secured housing at local jails. Cases with the death penalty option are required to be two-phase jury trials. Jury selection is lengthier and costlier in death penalty cases, and trials can span months.
The report cited the 2010 trial of Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, the father and son duo behind the Woodburn bank bombing. Jurors were summoned in early September, and the trial lasted months. Following a two-week penalty phase, the Turnidges were sentenced to death on Dec. 22, 2010.
Each death penalty case receives an automatic, direct review by the Oregon Supreme Court. This process lasts years, even decades. The four longest serving inmates on death row have spent a total of 110 years on death row. None of their appeals have gone very far past the direct review.
A Oregon Department of Justice official estimated the average direct appeal demanded about 250 hours of work by lawyers over its course.
The report profiled Randy Guzek, 47, the longest serving member on Oregon's row. Sentenced to death in 1988 for killing a couple in Deschutes County, Guzek has had his sentenced reversed three times. He was re-sentenced all three times. In 2015 the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed his sentence, but Guzek's appeals process remains in its early stages.
The study estimated that, not counting incarceration costs, Guzek's trial, sentencing, re-sentencings and appeals cost at least $3.95 million.
“Every Oregon taxpayer — including those in the 20 counties that haven’t sent anyone to death row since it was reinstated in 1984 — is bearing the burden of funding this broken system,” Lundell said. “That’s money that’s not being invested in our schools, in services for victims and their families, and in programs that would actually increase public safety. While the recent decision by Governor Brown to reaffirm the moratorium is a very welcome step, costs associated with Oregon’s death penalty continue to mount.”
With growing costs, along with the risk of racial bias and the execution of innocent people, the center recommended dropping the death penalty for an alternative already in place: life without possibility of parole.
The death penalty is not a proven deterrent, Lundell said. Considering how many times Oregonians have changed their minds on the death penalty, center officials said they believe it's time for the governor to step in. Brown should go further than simply reaffirming the moratorium, she added.
"We think she should use the constitutional powers of her office to commute the sentences of all of those on death row," Lundell said. "It would end or greatly reduce the vast sums being spent on those cases, and it would allow space for Oregonians to consider whether the death penalty should remain part of their justice system or should be consigned to history as we believe it should."
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