"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Idaho death penalty rarely used

Brandon J. Shaw
Brandon J. Shaw
NAMPA — Nine people are awaiting execution in Idaho. Only three have been executed since 1977 under Idaho’s death penalty.

The issue of capital punishment continues to raise questions nationwide — financially and ethically.

Those questions are now being asked in Canyon County, where prosecutors have filed papers to seek the death penalty against Brandon J. Shaw. He is the man accused of fatally stabbing Chelsey Rae Malone in November outside her home in the 2700 block of Berlin Place in Nampa. She was just 23 years old.

At only 23, Shaw may seem young to potentially sit on death row, but all nine inmates currently awaiting execution in Idaho entered prison between the ages of 20 and 36.

The oldest inmate currently on death row is 65-year-old Thomas Creech, who has been on death row since age 32 after he was convicted of beating an inmate to death in Ada County. Creech began his term on death row in January 1983.

The youngest inmate to ever enter Idaho’s death row is James Hairston, who was convicted and sentenced to death in November 1996 for fatally shooting two people in Bannock County. Hairston was 20 years old when he entered death row.

Since 1977, the state of Idaho has executed only three people, including murderers Paul Ezra Rhoades, Richard Leavitt and Keith Wells — a statistic some might say is unusual given Idaho’s conservative political climate. The state is one of 31 states that permits death as a sentencing option for first-degree murder convictions.

In the local case of Brandon Shaw, prosecutors filed the notice to seek the death penalty against him on Jan. 7, citing aggravating circumstances that made the alleged crime eligible for a sentence of death.

Nationwide statistics have shown the cost of sentencing someone to death exceeds the price of sentencing them to life in prison for a variety of reasons, including the price of trials, appeals and the execution itself.

In Idaho, a statewide fund is in place to protect counties from taking on the full financial burden of a capital punishment case.

Every county in Idaho, except for Jefferson County, utilizes a Capital Crimes Defense Fund established in 1998 to help counties pay for trial expenses. In 2014, the Canyon County Board of Commissioners contributed $66,436 to the Capital Crimes Defense Fund.

Pursuant to the fund, counties pay the first $10,000 of trial costs before submitting reimbursement claims to the fund, and they must pay the wages of the lead defense attorney.

In March 2013, a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee conducted a study regarding the state’s death penalty statute and expenditures after two people were executed within two years.

According to the Idaho Legislature’s 2013 study, 11 counties have been reimbursed more than $4 million for defense costs since 1998. In Canyon County, since 1998, there have been nine cases that utilized the Capital Crimes Defense Fund.

As of 2013 in Canyon County, $450,638 in claims have been paid for cases against nine defendants.

Part of those expenses come from the use of expert witnesses and the length of time it takes to complete adjudication in the process of reaching either a guilty verdict or an acquittal is lengthy.

Capital cases in Idaho, between 1998 and 2013, took an average of about 14.5 months to adjudicate, regardless of whether they went to trial. That’s about 3.1 months longer than it takes to adjudicate non-capital cases, according to the state report.

For defendants who did go to trial, between 1998 and 2013, capital cases took 20.5 months to complete. Non-capital cases took about seven months less time to complete trial. Those state averages were regardless of whether the defendant was found guilty or not guilty.

In a Jan. 19 meeting with the Canyon County Board of Commissioners, Chief Public Defender Tera Harden addressed Brandon Shaw’s case and the financial issues surrounding capital punishment cases.

Harden said three public defenders will need to be approved and qualified by the Supreme Court to work on Shaw’s case. Defense attorneys must be death penalty-certified to defend a potential capital punishment case and meet specific criteria mandated by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Harden also told commissioners that her office has two investigators assigned to the case and they will be having “enormous costs as it relates to experts” in trial.

According to minutes of the meeting, it is Harden’s “personal opinion that it is the most fiscally irresponsible thing that can be done by anyone in a prosecutor’s office, and costs will be staggering.”

DEATH ROW APPEALS

While initial trials can be pricey for counties, the cost of the multiple appeals death row inmates undergo is even greater.

The Idaho Department of Correction pays $88.24 per day to hold a death row inmate in custody at a maximum security prison — regardless if the inmate is on death row or not.

But that’s where many of the similarities end.

The state has an Appellate Public Defender’s Office with a capital punishment defense unit. From July 1, 2004, to Dec. 21, 2013, the office spent $477,716 on death penalty appellate litigation, according to the 2013 report. From 2001 to 2013, staff at the office spent an estimated 79,178 billable hours on capital litigation for 10 defendants sentenced to death — an average of 7,918 hours per defendant.

By comparison, during that same time, the office’s appellate unit accumulated only 16,980 billable hours of litigation for 95 defendants with a life sentence — an average of only about 179 hours per defendant, according to the legislative report.


Source: Idaho Press-Tribune, Ruth Brown, February 6, 2016

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