Crime

Is Idaho’s death penalty worth it? Process is costly in all phases

The imposing Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Boise, ringed by razor wire, is reserved for the “most disruptive” offenders.
The imposing Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Boise, ringed by razor wire, is reserved for the “most disruptive” offenders. Idaho Statesman file

The Boise County Prosecutor’s Office is small, staffed with just three attorneys who handle about 2,500 cases a year.

It’s been more than a decade since it had a first-degree murder case go to trial.

This year, Prosecutor Ian Gee and Chief Deputy Jay Rosenthal have their hands full with two first-degree murder cases heading to trial, including one death penalty case. Gee recently added another full-time attorney, Jolene Maloney, to the office.

Death penalty cases are time-intensive, expensive and rare in Idaho.

The last person in the state to receive a death sentence was Erick Hall in 2005, though Darrell Payne was resentenced to death in 2010 (the Idaho Supreme Court reversed his first death sentence because of improper victim impact statements). Both those cases were in Ada County and both remain on death row.

“In my opinion, this is the most serious decision that a prosecutor can make,” said longtime Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs, who agreed to talk with the Statesman about the complexity and demands of death penalty cases.

Loebs, who has been prosecuting attorney since 1997, has sought the death penalty in three cases, but none went to trial.

“If I think it’s the right thing to do, then that’s what we do,” Loebs said. “It does cost the county a lot more money.”

PROSECUTION, DEFENSE TEAMS

State law requires that in death penalty cases in which the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, two qualified trial attorneys (public defenders or private attorneys) be assigned to the case, and both must be death-penalty qualified.

Costs are usually covered by the defendant if he hires his own attorney. Sometimes when a defendant hires an attorney, he may come back and say he’s out of money. In that case, the defendant can ask the county to cover costs of experts, testing and investigation. A judge can require the county to cover those costs.

Loebs said preparing murder cases for trial usually requires a team of at least five or six people: two prosecutors, an investigator, a legal assistant and one or more victim/witness coordinators. Prosecutor offices with small budgets might not have an investigator or victim/witness coordinator.

“Everyone jumps in to help,” said Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts, who supervises a staff of 70 lawyers.

During one of its busiest two-year periods ever, the Ada County office handled 18 murder cases in 2007-08. Two of those cases involved two co-defendants and one had three co-defendants. Ada County has sought the death penalty about eight times over the past 20 years, Bennetts estimated.

When a prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, it guarantees more work. Because a person’s life is at stake, there’s an intense level of scrutiny that’s not present in other cases.

If the trial ends in a guilty verdict, then comes the sentencing phase. That’s essentially another trial, in which the prosecutor has to justify a death sentence.

The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office is assisting Boise County. Maloney and Rosenthal are handling the death penalty case; two attorneys from Ada County are handling the other. Boise County is covering all costs.

Boise County commissioners set aside $250,000 for the first murder trial, the nondeath penalty case expected this year. That trial, expected to take about three weeks, will be at the Ada County Courthouse. Gee said the county likely will need to budget extra money for 2016 to cover the costs of a second trial. The prosecutor’s 2015 budget - not including the extra money - is $339,000.

Boise County Commission Chairwoman Vicki Wilkins said the county will seek financial assistance from the state’s Capital Crimes Defense Fund, a reserve fund created in 1998 to help counties cover costs of death penalty cases. The county, with its seat in tiny Idaho City and less than 7,000 people, has a 2015 budget of about $9 million.

In Idaho, more than $4 million has been reimbursed to counties for capital defense costs since 1998.

WHICH CASES QUALIFY FOR DEATH PENALTY?

The two Boise County first-degree murder cases involve the same defendant: Michael S. Dauber, a 46-year-old former Idaho City resident who worked in helicopter logging.

Dauber is accused of killing two friends: Joshua Reddington, 25, in 2000, and Steven Kalogerakos, 42, in 2007. Both men were missing for years. Kalogerakos’ remains were found in 2013; Reddington’s remains were found in late 2014.

In December, Boise County prosecutors filed their intent to seek the death penalty in the Reddington case. Gee has declined to discuss the case.

Dauber is being represented by attorneys Rob Chastain and Elisa Massoth.

Prosecutors brought in DNA experts from Washington, D.C., and Texas to testify at Dauber’s preliminary hearing for the Reddington case - one of the kind of expenses that adds to trial costs.

Trial dates have not been set. Both cases will be discussed at a hearing at 10 a.m. March 12 before District Judge Patrick Owen at the Boise County Courthouse.

DEATH PENALTY COSTS

A 2014 state report examined the financial costs of the death penalty in Idaho, though it suggested more study was needed to determine exact figures.

The authors of the study reviewed the cases of 251 defendants charged with first-degree murder from 1998 to 2013. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for 55 defendants, although the death penalty was later withdrawn for 13 of those defendants.

Of the 42 eligible for the death sentence, seven were sentenced to death.

Besides the possibility of a not guilty verdict, there are three possible sentencing outcomes in a death penalty case:

If the jury determines the prosecution has proved that an aggravating factor warranting the death penalty exists and there are no mitigating factors that would make the death penalty unjust, then the court must impose a sentence of death.

If the jury determines the prosecution proved at least one aggravating factor, but a mitigating factor exists that makes imposition of the death penalty unjust, the defendant would automatically receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

If the jury determines that the prosecution did not prove an aggravating factor existed, then the defendant faces sentencing by the judge of up to life in prison, including a minimum of 10 years before eligible for parole.

PRO AND CON

The death penalty stirs strong emotions. That’s one reason why policymakers would like a definitive judgment on whether executions work - in deterrence value and bottom-line costs.

Critics say money spent on executions could be used for victim services or other more beneficial programs.

“These statistics show clearly just how inefficient our government has been in spending our tax dollars,” Leo Morales, communications and advocacy director for ACLU of Idaho, wrote in the Statesman when the report was released in March.

Gov. Butch Otter said the study leaves open the policy question of whether tax dollars are wisely spent on death penalty cases. And he said he’s not changing his mind about keeping the death penalty in Idaho.

“Let me leave no doubt about my own continuing support for existing laws and procedures,” Otter wrote.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

  Comments