Last week, John McCluskey was sentenced to life without possibility of release in a federal prison, after a New Mexico jury could not unanimously agree that he should be executed for the 2010 carjacking murders of Gary and Linda Haas of Oklahoma.
This outcome occurred years and at least a million dollars later than it should have.
In February, the Albuquerque Journal reported that McCluskey had been willing since early in the case to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence less than death. Yet, government prosecutors rebuffed all efforts to resolve this case without an expensive trial.
As recently as February 2013, Senior Judge James A. Parker offered to mediate. Then U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales rejected the offer, though he acknowledged the “logistical and financial burdens that capital prosecutions inflict on the entire U.S. District Court, and particularly the chambers of the assigned judge.”
Despite the government’s recognition of the enormous diversion of resources a single death penalty trial entails, the government stated there was no middle ground when the death penalty was at issue and mediation would be “unproductive.”
Why did the government insist on this expensive trial, especially when the government was in fiscal crisis, with federal employees being furloughed and laid off in New Mexico and throughout the country? Just how fiscally irresponsible was this decision?
In our view, very.
It is impossible to accurately quantify how much the McCluskey prosecution cost taxpayers, in part because the Department of Justice does not release its own costs.
Some estimates are possible based on studies of defense costs.
A 2010 study by the Administrative Office of the Courts concluded the median cost of a case in which the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty was nearly eight times greater than the cost of a case in which the death penalty was not authorized.
In actual dollars, the median paid to private attorneys who represented death-eligible defendants was $44,809 where the Attorney General did not authorize prosecution, and $353,185 where the case was authorized.
In authorized cases, cases that went to trial had a median cost of $465,602, while those resolved with a plea agreement cost $200,933.
The average cost for just the defense at trial in a federal death penalty case is $620,932.
These figures do not include the cost of having a courtroom, a judge, and court staff, as well as several federal prosecutors and numerous investigative and support staff, preoccupied with a single case.
These figures do not include the cost of five months spent by the citizen jurors in McCluskey’s trial.
These costs do not include expensive prosecution experts. One government witness testified in the McCluskey trial that he was paid $900 per hour.
And, of course, the trauma endured by the survivors in the extended proceeding is incalculable.
Although government employees will be paid the same regardless of what they work on, the cost of a death penalty prosecution must include the diversion of their resources to a single proceeding.
If a government employee must devote 1,000 hours to seek a death sentence but only 100 hours to obtain a life without parole sentence pursuant to a plea agreement, that 900 hours could have been devoted to other cases.
The federal costs are not unusual.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, studies of the death penalty in many states, including Colorado, California, Maryland, Nevada, Washington, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida and Texas have all found that costs of seeking an execution are enormously higher than the cost of seeking a sentence of life without parole.
The citizens of New Mexico rejected the death penalty, in part because it requires diverting resources that could be allocated to programs that better increase public safety, health and welfare.
Isn’t it time the federal government rejected it as well?