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September 27, 2021

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High cost of death penalty could affect its future in Nevada

Nevada State Prison

Sandra Chereb / AP

Nevada State Prison is seen Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, in Carson City.

Nevada’s criminal justice system spends nearly twice as much handling death penalty cases compared with murder cases where capital punishment isn’t sought, according to a report released Tuesday by state auditors.

The state-mandated study, which surveyed data from 27 state and local agencies, gives ammunition to death penalty opponents who have failed to defeat public support for capital punishment using moral objections. It is, by far, Nevada’s most comprehensive study on the controversial practice and will serve as a law makers' guide for years to come.

“As we move into the next (legislative) session and the session after that, we would still be able to use this as basic information to frame the discussion around the death penalty for a while,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said after auditors Paul Townsend and Dan Crossman presented the study before a legislative panel in Carson City. “It’s very thorough.”

Auditors assembled the 105-page report by sampling data from 28 cases, calculating costs associated with legal counsel — both defense and prosecution — as well as for money spent on court proceedings and incarceration.

Here are three highlights from the document's release:

From a suspect’s arrest through his or her final days behind bars, officials spend at least $1.3 million on murder cases where convicts are sentenced to death but not executed — that’s $532,000 more compared with murder cases where capital punishment wasn't sought.

Litigation costs, including the trial and appeal phase, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases. And expenses are similar for all death penalty cases, regardless of whether a sentence is given or not.

Among all prison inmates convicted of murder, costs are highest for people on death row.

There were 83 people sentenced to death in Nevada as of late last year. Prosecutors could have potentially saved an estimated $44 million by never pursuing capital punishment in those cases.

“The policy question is whether having that system is worth paying that kind of money,” said Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender in Las Vegas specializing in capital punishment who watched Tuesday's meeting via teleconference from the Legislature's Las Vegas office.

Nevada's per capita death penalty rate ranks fourth in the country and tops Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But the state's death chamber is seldom used, and only a dozen people have been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the capital punishment in 1976. Of those, only one died against his will.

The last execution in Nevada happened more than eight years ago.

It’s likely the study underestimated the cost of death penalty cases because of underreporting from government agencies.

Townsend and Crossman told legislators on Tuesday that the study’s findings are limited because “many agencies with significant roles in the death penalty process” were either hesitant to provide information or couldn’t provide documentation about the amount of staff time spent on every case examined.

Townsend said he met with representatives from the Washoe and Clark county district attorney’s offices, and both said they didn’t have specific enough records to fully answer the auditors' questions.

“Those entities are supported by taxpayer dollars and they should probably be able to better account for how they’re spending their time,” Carlton said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a little disconcerting.”

A spokeswoman for Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he would discuss the audit’s findings early next week after reviewing the document.

Opponents of the death penalty are hopeful the study’s findings will lead to fewer capital punishment cases in the state.

The study’s findings fall in line with previous research examining the financial burden of capital murder cases — a study released this year by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case costs as much as four times more than other murder cases.

Critics of the practice hope Nevada’s study will bolster efforts to erode support for capital punishment.

“A lot of people who favor the death penalty think it’s cheaper,” said Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who also watched Tuesday's meeting from Las Vegas. “Once people understand and they’re informed, maybe things will change.”

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