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Audit: Data from Clark, Washoe could drive up death penalty cost

Death penalty cases may cost Nevada even more than a recent audit shows because prosecutors in Clark and Washoe counties didn’t provide key figures to the state.

The audit, released Tuesday during a Nevada Legislative Commission subcommittee meeting, showed the average murder case in which prosecutors seek the death penalty costs an extra $225,000 to $500,00 per case. Death sentences cost between $1 million and $1.3 million, while non-death penalty murder cases average about $775,000.

But district attorney offices for Clark and Washoe counties did not provide data for attorney payments for time spent outside of court, pretrial motions or time spent on sentencing hearings outside of court, according to the audit. The Clark County DA’s office also did not provide data for payments and costs for either lay or expert witnesses.

Out-of-court costs, which can include payments to attorneys for writing and filing motions and witness payments, make up the bulk of the cost of a trial, especially in cases where the death penalty is on the table, according to the audit. Laws governing death sentences build in a more extensive trial and appeal process.

Not having the data from Nevada’s two most populous counties may have skewed the comparative costs, auditors said. But by how much is unclear.

Of the 82 people on death row in Nevada, 77 — or 94 percent — came from Clark and Washoe counties.

Without knowing how much prosecutors spend in the capital punishment cases, it’s difficult to know how much could be saved by eliminating it, the audit noted.

The chair of the subcommittee — convened to inform the Legislature on death penalty costs — said she wants a better explanation of “the dollars and cents” behind death penalty prosecution costs.

“We need to look at why it’s not tracked. There’s a lot more questions than there are answers,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday. “I think we should have a discussion about that and see if they have the resources to do it.”

Prosecutors should be held accountable for the time they spend on a case-by-case basis, Carlton said.

Washoe and Clark County prosecutors said they couldn’t provide certain information because it doesn’t exist: Neither track their staffers’ time on specific cases, plus they work multiple cases at a time.

Clark County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli said his office met with state auditors multiple times, answered their questions and provided the information requested.

“I would respectfully disagree with any contention that we did not fully participate with the audit,” said Lalli, who heads the DA’s criminal division.

Eliminating the death penalty as a sentence wouldn’t save money for the Clark County DA’s office, Lalli said. Prosecutors receive the same pay regardless of the sentence they pursue.

But Clark County Public Defender Phil Khon said statistics that show more death row inmates die from causes other than execution should raise questions about cost efficiency.

Natural causes and suicide have killed more Nevada death row inmates that executions since 1977 — when Nevada’s death penalty was reinstated. Twelve have died naturally, the audit said, and four have taken their own lives.

Nevada has executed 12 people during the same amount of time. Forty-one have seen their death sentences overturned.

“How do we justify spending $500,000 to put someone on death row, when they’re going to die naturally anyways?” Kohn said. “We would not be spending hundreds of thousands on cases with life without parole.”

Of the 1,325 murder cases in Clark County from 2000 to 2012, the most recent data available for the audit, prosecutors sought the death penalty for 227 people. Just over half of those death penalty cases ended in plea deals, according to the audit. There are currently 50 cases in Nevada pending trial where the death penalty is on the table.

Clark County has seen a decrease in the number of death sentences prosecutors have sought in recent years. In 2010, there were 26 death penalty cases. That number dropped to six in 2012, the year Steve Wolfon became district attorney.

Other financial and operational issues plague the process of sentencing people to death in Nevada.

One is the state lack’s a usable execution chamber. Last used in 2006, the execution room at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Nevada Department of Corrections asked for state funding for a new $700,000 chamber last year, but lawmakers denied the request.

Carlton wonders how much money the state is willing to invest in the death penalty considering all the financial burdens that come with it.

“Why rebuild something that is not cost effective?” Carlton asked.

Contact reporter Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Find him on Twtter: @ColtonLochhead.

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