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The Costs of Colorado's Death Penalty

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One of the claims that proponents of the death penalty often cling to, when faced with mounting evidence and data about the high costs and inequalities inherent in capital punishment, is that it provides a sense of closure to the families of the victims. Bob Autobee, whose son was killed eleven years ago, explained in a recent letter to District Attorney George Brauchler that the needless, expensive, and prolonged pursuit of the death penalty in his son's case has actually denied him the closure he's sought for over a decade.

Mr. Autobee painstakingly explained to the prosecutor that his family's grieving has been made much worse "not [because of] what Mr. Montour did," or because of a delayed execution, but by the prosecution's tireless pursuit of the death penalty against the Autobee family's wishes. The pursuit of execution in this and other cases across Colorado carries huge costs, both in taxpayer dollars and in emotional toll on victims. In the words of Mr. Autobee, a grieving father, "Enough is enough."

As the Autobees' experience of delay, uncertainty, and prosecutorial grandstanding illustrates, the death penalty is too costly, and provides too little benefit, to continue. The ACLU of Colorado estimates the cost of a death penalty trial to be $3.5 million dollars as opposed to a trial seeking life without parole, which costs around $150,000. The difference, according to the ACLU, is enough to pay over 70 firefighters or teachers for a year, or to provide hundreds of students access to Head Start. These increased costs associated with death penalty prosecutions are not mere coincidences. State and federal constitutional provisions require heightened -- and costly -- procedures when a prosecutor seeks the ultimate, irreversible penalty.

For similar reasons, the seemingly interminable delay associated with capital cases, and experienced by the Autobee family, is unavoidable. In a recent study, court docket entries from 1999 to 2010 were used to analyze the total number of court days, including pretrial proceedings, trial, and sentencing, that were required for capital murder cases versus murder cases prosecuted for life imprisonment without parole. Using this data, it is possible to see that a death penalty trial takes approximately 153 court days, as compared to a prosecution for life without parole, which takes an average of just over 24 days of court time.

Even more striking, this same data reveals that a death penalty prosecution takes much, much longer to progress from an initial charge to an actual sentence, not even counting any appeals. In jury trial cases, a capital prosecution from charging to sentencing takes, on average, 1,902 days. By contrast, jury trial cases in life without parole prosecutions took approximately 526 days. The difference, then, is almost four full years of delay in the trial court alone, without even considering the differential in time required for appeals. This time equals delays in justice for victims, and hard costs for taxpayers.

In pleading with the prosecution to accept Mr. Montour's offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, Bob Autobee has asked prosecutors to set aside their political ambitions. At this point, it is an incontestable fact that the costs in time and in money of seeking the death penalty for Montour far outweigh those of prosecuting his case for life without parole. Colorado prosecutors should listen to Mr.

Autobee and direct resources toward training, safety measures, or treatment that may actually deter homicides.

Justin F. Marceau
Associate Professor of Law, University of Denver

Megan Healy
J.D., University of Denver, expected 2014