April 24, 2002


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The price of executions


EARLIER THIS MONTH a blue-ribbon commission assembled by Illinois governor George Ryan presented a scathing review of that state's capital punishment process: innocent people are being condemned (13 of them at present count have been exonerated); defense lawyers are failing their clients; prosecutors are behaving unscrupulously; race is a huge factor; and more than half of the cases are reversed on appeal.

If all that wasn't enough, the panel also pointed out another problem – one that's garnered little media attention anywhere in the country. Some commissioners, concerned about the massive financial costs of imposing each death sentence, "questioned whether the dedication of so many resources to a relatively small number of cases was prudent."

It's a good question for California too. This state, according to credible studies, spends at least $90 million annually adjudicating capital cases. Tack on the costs of postconviction court appeals – and in California all death cases automatically go to the state Supreme Court – and you've got a major-league waste of taxpayer dollars.

The Cary Stayner case, as A.C. Thompson reports on page 18, is a perfect example. Thanks to a bloodthirsty local district attorney – who got a nod from state attorney general Bill Lockyer – California is in the process of blowing $3 million in public money in a bid to execute the so-called Yosemite slayer.

Stayner is already serving a sentence of life without parole for one of the Yosemite killings. He'll never menace the public again. Executing him has no justification on moral or public safety grounds – and it's a terrible waste of money.

Meanwhile, California's public school system is in ruins. Retirement benefits for state employees are being slashed. The number of homeless on the streets keeps growing. The list goes on and on.

The anti-death penalty movement, which has been stalled for years now, has never put much emphasis on the fiscal case against executions. But as the Stayner case demonstrates, it's a powerful argument. For starters, advocates ought to ask local D.A.s to make public the cost of each death-penalty case and the state legislature to do a full, detailed accounting of the real price of capital punishment.