The extraordinary expense of Washington’s death penalty cases was in the news again this month, with taxpayers on the hook for most of the cost.
Clallam County officials revealed that the cost of Darold Stenson’s retrial is approaching $900,000 – this in addition to the cost of the initial trial and appeals that led to his original conviction and death sentence being overturned in 2012. Stenson was convicted of murdering his wife and business partner in 1993 and given a death sentence. Eighteen years later, the Washington Supreme Court reversed Stenson’s conviction when previously withheld evidence came to light.
Because county prosecutors did not decide to seek a mandatory life sentence until the trial was under way, a public defender could not represent Stenson in the second trial. On Nov. 12, Stenson was found guilty of two counts of first-degree premeditated, aggravated murder. He is expected to be sentenced Dec. 10 to a mandatory life term in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a roundabout way, this case ended where it should have begun. Had the death penalty not been an option, county officials estimate the retrial would have cost about $100,000 – a savings to taxpayers of $800,000.
Setting aside for the moment the compelling case that can be made that the death penalty is applied unfairly and that it carries an unacceptable risk of executing innocent people, the fact is that the death penalty is very costly.
Washington state’s death penalty can cost millions of dollars per case – much more than imprisoning someone for life. Because a person’s life is at stake, vital extra safeguards must be part of the process to prevent an innocent person from being executed.
Replacing the death penalty with an ironclad sentence of life without parole would allow Washington state to redirect millions of taxpayer dollars to policing and to programs that are proven to prevent crime and keep communities safer.