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Death penalty numbers add up for district attorney, taxpayers

Death penalty foes have come up with a killer statistic to promote their cause.

Clark County has more pending death penalty cases per capita than any other urban county in the United States, according to Paola Armeni, president of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Using her numbers, which District Attorney David Roger is not disputing, Clark County has 80 defendants facing pending trials in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In raw numbers, Maricopa County is No. 1 with about 130 pending death penalty cases. But the Arizona county has twice the population of Clark County.

Los Angeles County has 33 pending death penalty cases, with five times Clark County’s population.

California’s Riverside County, which has the same population as Clark County, has about 40 death penalty cases pending — half the number of Clark County.

Understand, this doesn’t mean jurors and judges actually hand down that many death penalty verdicts each year. It’s a cumulative number. Prosecutors estimate they approve seeking the death penalty for 15 or 16 cases a year, on average, although the number has increased.

There are plenty of theories about why District Attorney Roger, who relies on a death penalty panel, seeks the death penalty more often than prosecutors in other counties.

Armeni believes he does it as a negotiating tool.

However, Public Defender Phil Kohn credits the large number to Roger’s refusal to negotiate with defense attorneys for life without parole in exchange for dropping the death penalty.

Roger countered it’s because the crimes warrant the death penalty under Nevada law, which spells out the aggravating circumstances where death is appropriate.

Chris Owens, assistant district attorney, estimates that an average of two or three cases a year end up with death penalties. He credited the large number of pending cases to multiple appeals and judges who postpone trials.

What isn’t disputed? Death penalty cases are more expensive because there are different standards when a life is at risk. The defendant gets two attorneys, and more research and investigation is required.

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, is pushing Assembly Bill 501, a study to determine the costs of death penalty cases in Nevada: "At this point it’s a financial issue. David Roger is over budget, and yet he has 80 death penalty cases pending. Washoe County only has one. Why is he wasting our money pursuing the death penalty when there is no money and it’s virtually impossible to actually put someone to death?"

There are 77 people at Ely State Prison awaiting execution. One has been on death row more than 31 years. The last execution was in 2006 when murderer Daryl Mack voluntarily stopped appealing.

Other studies estimate capital punishment trials cost $1 million more than trials in which the prosecutors seek life without parole. The biggest cost comes after the conviction.

When Roger took office in 2003, he said, "The defense bar came to me and said there’s a bill before the Legislature which would increase our rates in capital cases. Would you support that bill? I agreed to support that bill, and now eight years later, they are using that as a sword against me."

Meanwhile, Assembly Bill 520 would shift the costs of post-conviction appeals for all indigent defendants, including death penalty cases, from the state back to the county of origin. Clark County opposes that, estimating the unfunded mandate will be more than $500,000 a year and will increase over the years.

If 80 pending death penalty cases equals $80 million in higher trial costs, and millions more for appeals, it makes one question how much is too much when it comes to justice.

"The cost of killing killers is killing us," Armeni contends.

Should the cost of justice make a difference when the economy is bad?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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