Dead Again?

The drive to bring back capital punishment has friends in high places

From a budgetary perspective, says Dieter, the most outrageous case is that of California. The state does not execute many people (fewer than one per year), but it puts a lot of people on death row and tries many more. If you take the state's total expenditure on the death penalty system and then divide it by the number of executions, each "successful" execution costs in excess of $100 million, says Dieter.

Hackbarth allows that he has little idea what the death penalty would cost Minnesota. Because of the bill's poor prospects this session, he says, he has not requested a fiscal analysis. But taking even the lower estimates of additional trial costs, it would be costly. On average, the state sees about 30 first-degree murder cases per year. How many of those would be death-qualified? No one knows, because no one has examined the issue.

Hackbarth's bill lists 23 aggravating circumstances under which the death penalty could be sought. Given the breadth and vagueness of those factors, it is conceivable that most murder-one cases could be tried as capital cases if a prosecutor were so inclined. To address this issue, Hackbarth proposes the creation of a capital punishment commission charged with drafting policy guidelines to ensure the death penalty is sought only against "the worst of the worst."

The past is prologue: A Minnesota gallows scene, circa 1900
Courtesy of the Minnesota House of Representatives
The past is prologue: A Minnesota gallows scene, circa 1900

Even with a small number of capital cases, counters Minnesota State Public Defender John Stuart, a death penalty law would overburden the state's approximately 500 full- and part-time public defenders. Currently, public defenders in Minnesota handle an average of 870 cases a year--twice the American Bar Association's recommended standards. Because death penalty cases tend to consume so many resources, Stuart claims, a death penalty law would affect the quality of the representation all indigent defendants receive, not just murder suspects.

The state's current budget problems could further exacerbate the problem. While the public defenders' budget has not been allocated, layoffs are all but a certainty. Pawlenty has recommended a 15-percent cut. While the House has proposed a lesser cut--and the Senate a slight increase--Stuart is not optimistic. "Usually, when the court system catches a cold, the public defenders get pneumonia," he says.

Public defenders are not alone in their alarm at the prospect of bringing back the death penalty. "I think there are a lot of prosecutors in this state who would rather resign than request the death penalty," Stuart says. "I meet with county attorneys every year, and I have never met one who is in favor of it."

John Kingrey, the executive director of the Association of Minnesota County Attorneys, says his organization has taken no formal stance. But, he points out, the entire court system is already stressed. "The budget problems are going to affect the quality of our system of justice, and it's not just public defenders. It's county attorneys and judges, too," Kingrey says. Death penalty cases, he adds, would only heighten what are already growing stresses on the system.

Budgetary issues aside, Richard Dieter finds it difficult to believe that lawmakers in Minnesota or any of the other 11 non-death penalty states would have the stomach to bring back capital punishment. "In a few states, it's been close. Massachusetts has been through the process repeatedly, and they came close a few years ago," Dieter observes. But with a steady stream of headlines about exonerated death row defendants fueling the conclusion that the death penalty system is broken, he says, that is getting harder and harder.

"Why would anyone want to step into that quagmire?" he asks.

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