We’ve been fairly called out for giving insufficient attention to the ongoing quiet revolution in capital punishment law. It is true: our criminal law coverage is underdeveloped. My excuse – as usual – is incompetence. DP law presents a host of complicated doctrinal problems: sounding off at random to the latest development is dangerous. On the other hand, no one said blogging was supposed to be safe.
Today, Doug Berman comments on the NYT story on capital punishment costs. The story offers anecdotal evidence that the judiciary has responded to underfunded capital defense units by shutting down prosecutions. If the trend continues, “states unwilling to pay the huge costs of defending people charged in capital cases may be unable to conduct executions.” Doug sums up:
Consequently, states that do not adequately fund capital defense get sub-standard efforts that lead to more costs on the back end during appellate review. Indeed, as the posts below highlights, any capital punishment system is necessarily a very costly endeavor.
My cynical response to these observations starts with the observation that stringent judicial review of capital claims hinges largely on Justice Kennedy’s continued status as swing Justice. The executing States would move quickly to reduce capital defense guidelines given even subtle signals from the Court that ultimate merits review would be unavailing.
Moreover, it seems odd to me to claim that the death penalty is expensive and therefore inefficient when, of course, it is expensive primarily as the result of a self-conscious litigation strategy by folks like Steven Bright and Brian Stevenson. The death penalty doesn’t have to be expensive: abolitionists have made it so on purpose. By setting ever-higher standards for effective capital defense through litigation and by example, abolitionists have made death penalty prosecutions more difficult for states to swallow. Of course, abolitionists can have mixed motives: a standard that increases cost will also likely reduce wrongful conviction in any individual case. But it is odd that the article spent so little time examining the possibility that costs aren’t a byproduct of the search for innocence but instead a direct result of what we might think of a litigation strategy to impose a constitutional tax on capital prosecutions. The article says – without further explanation – that “Lawmakers say [a particular judge] and the defense lawyers are deliberately driving up the costs to make sure that the death penalty is too expensive for the state.” Well, no kidding!
Increasing costs is good strategy if your only goal is to prevent executions. But it is a bad strategy – as least when compared to the innocence project – at increasing public support for abolition. And it is a worse strategy if your concerns are more broadly directed. Legislatures will resent being bootstrapped out of their preferred sentencing means. And it is unlikely that the death penalty funds taken from indigent defense organizations by spiteful legislatures will ever be restored.
(Image source: Wikicommons)