As jury selection continues for yet another death penalty prosecution in Dallas County, I wonder why prosecutors continue to spend precious resources on these emotionally-fueled pursuits. The decision to seek death in Texas is at the discretion of the local elected district attorney and is often motivated by politics, not prudence. In an era of ballooning budget gaps and a ruinously expensive criminal justice system, it is time to demand that district attorneys make better use of our money.
Both at home and across the country, jurors have become reluctant to impose death penalty sentences. Formerly one of the deadliest counties in the country, Dallas County jurors have not imposed a new death sentence since 2013. Support for the death penalty is lower now than at any point since 1972. America’s growing discomfort with the death penalty is explained by many factors, including racial disparity, concerns about wrongful convictions, and moral or religious opposition to the death penalty.
Some of this resistance is also due to cost. Nationwide, each death prosecution costs about $3 million. Just the trial stage in a death penalty case can cost a staggering one-million dollars. Looking purely at dollars and cents, the huge price tag doesn’t get Texas taxpayers a different outcome than non-death penalty prosecution.
The outcome in cases in which prosecutors seek death also isn’t guaranteed: since 2015, death-qualified juries in Texas have rejected the death penalty nearly as many times as they have imposed it. Last year in Dallas, two cases in which prosecutors sought death resulted in sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In at least one of those cases, the defendant was willing to plead guilty if the death penalty had been taken off the table, thereby avoiding the exorbitant expense and emotional trauma of the trial.
Nationally, more than a third of the death sentences imposed since 1973 have been overturned, and more than 10% of death penalty convictions are tossed. Because this litigation takes time, defendants sentenced to die remain in the prison population, just as if they received a life sentence; in fact, the inmates currently on Texas’ death row have been there for an average of 15.5 years. Even for those who are eventually executed, a death sentence does little more to remove defendants from society than does a life sentence.
And that is the cost if all goes according to plan, which it rarely does. Wrongful convictions, which seem to occur with shockingly high frequency in death penalty cases, drive up the cost of death penalty prosecutions even higher. Texas has already spent well over $100 million on compensation for wrongful convictions. Setting aside the moral hazards that come with condemning the innocent to death, the costs associated with sending an innocent person to death row are exorbitant.
No longer seeking death sentences should be part of an overall strategy to reduce the cost of Texas’ alarmingly expensive criminal justice system, a movement that is supported across the political spectrum.
Even if one supports capital punishment philosophically, the modern death penalty in America is inefficient and ultimately indefensible. It is time for the business community to demand common sense fiscal reform within systems of prosecution, just as we demand fiscal reform across local, state, and federal governments nationwide. It is time to demand that our district attorneys redirect our limited resources towards programs that make us safer, instead of death penalty prosecutions that make us poorer.
– W.R. (Pete) Mefford joined Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1969. During the next four decades, he lived and/or worked in seven states and seventeen countries in a variety of assignments including providing IT services to nine different industries as well as state and national governments.
He lived in the Dallas area for twenty-three years and retired as a Corporate Vice President in 2001. He has children and grandchildren who also live in the area.