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CU Denver Voices

Death penalty puts undue strain on justice system


Photo of Mary Dodge in the School of Public Affairs
Mary Dodge, associate professor, School of Public Affairs

By Mary Dodge

Admittedly, Nathan Dunlap deserved to receive the death penalty.

In 1993, Dunlap, with extreme indifference toward human life, entered an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant and murdered four employees and attempted to kill another. Given the circumstances of the crime, his criminal history, and the widespread public outrage that surrounded the case, even the most adamant anti-death penalty advocates may reluctantly concede that the sentencing decision was a just outcome.

Oddly, and in stark contrast to the hue and cry for his execution, the intricacies of the Dunlap case help support the proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Colorado.

From an emotional standpoint, the death penalty is only well supported under a theory of retribution and specific deterrence. An eye for an eye position toward the death penalty, however, ignores evidence that the punishment fails to promote general deterrence, lacks public support, and results in the execution of innocent people — all arguments that fail to persuade when a particularly heinous crime occurs.

A more convincing argument from a rational-choice perspective is a cost-benefit analysis. Surprisingly, the financial burden for the courts and corrections systems to implement the death penalty is far higher than sentences involving life without parole.

Consider conservative estimates that the 16-year Dunlap saga thus far has cost Colorado $2 million — and he still sits on death row.

Pretrial costs for the defense and prosecution in capital cases include psychological evaluations, pretrial motions (which can be as high as 400 filings), investigations and discovery.

Dunlap's case included over 20,000 pages of discovery materials. Defense side costs in a capital case can easily exceed $100,000. The financial burden for the defense is generally incurred by the public defender's office, that is, the taxpayers.

The price for pursuing prosecution is astronomical. The 18th Judicial District Attorney's office billed the Colorado Department of Corrections $204,000 to cover capital cases for six months in 2007 and was criticized for using death penalty prosecutions as a "cash cow."

The preparation cost, according to District Attorney Carol Chambers, was "an over-conservative estimate." A report by researchers at the Urban Institute discovered that almost 70 percent of the costs are accumulated during the trial because of extensive case preparations, longer court proceedings, intensive voir dire processes to death-qualify the jurors, and the additional penalty phase.

Dunlap began his appeals over 10 years ago. The most recent, filed in federal court, included a 750-page motion. Before the current appeal, the U.S. Supreme court refused to hear the case. In 1999 and 2001, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected his appeals. A 2002 hearing by the trial court to consider sentence reduction lasted for 52 days. In 2007, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the lower court's finding that Dunlap's trial counsel was ineffective — a post conviction relief ploy commonly used by everyone sentenced to death, regardless of the abilities of the defense attorney. Now the case may languish in the U.S. District Court for years.

HB09-1274 offers a conservative estimate on the cost of the death penalty — money that may be better spent on cold cases. Experts estimate that court battles in death penalty cases can reach several million dollars.
Across the country, support for the death penalty is waning, and Colorado is among 11 states that have proposed bills to abolish capital punishment in 2009. This week, New Mexico became the second state to abolish the death penalty since 1976.

The financial and emotional costs for families, jurors, attorneys, and judges are too high a price in difficult economic times. More sensible spending of the estimated $4 million dollars annually that Colorado uses on the death penalty is an investment in decreasing potential crimes from undetected perpetrators.

We've already solved the Chuck E. Cheese murders; now let's focus on solving other egregious crimes.

Mary Dodge is an associate professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver.