The Price of the Death Penalty: Bill Proposes New Study

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Capital punishment is up for debate again in the Missouri legislature, as a new proposal would require the state auditor study the cost of a death penalty case versus a life imprisonment.

Missouri State Senator Joseph Keaveny (D-St Louis) proposed the bill, and says it would be the first comprehensive study of the cost of the death penalty in Missouri. He says 12 other states have studied it and found that death penalty cases are between three times to ten times more expensive than life prison cases.

However, some say justice should be blind to cost. Death penalty supporter Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd just Thursday announced he would have no problem going after the death penalty for defendant Quintin O’Dell, the man who admitted to killing Alissa Shippert and was caught when he tried to kill again. Zahnd calls him a potential serial killer in the making.

But the victims families and Zahnd decided instead of the death penalty, they would accept O’Dell’s guilty plea and send him to prison for the rest of his life.

“We’re trading off what everybody believed was the appropriate, full measure of justice,” says Zahnd. “But to achieve that would mean prolonged period of having to suffer through what happened to Alissa over and over and over.”

Zahnd says cost of a death penalty trial was never a factor in this decision. But death penalty opponents, like UMKC Law Professor Sean O’Brien, say it should be.

“We see that when fiscal coffers get tight and money gets tight, they have to start making choices like do we have a death penalty or do we lay off police officers?” says O’Brien.

O’Brien says that death penalty cases are extremely expensive – ten times as much as a non-capital case. He says that’s because the trials are longer and require so much more research and preparation. Then there’s all the appeals after the trial, but O’Brien says he’s seen first hand why that’s important – and has literally saved innocent people.

“So if we reduce the appeals or try to reduce the cost we will kill innocent people,” says O’Brien.

Zahnd understands why the protections and appeals process are there but thinks some things in the system could change.

“Because don’t get me wrong, I want to make sure we only give the death sentence to people who actually committed the crimes,” said Zahnd. “But in this case (Shippert’s murder) there was no question.”

If the bill passes, the study would also include the cost of cases where death penalty was pursued but not carried through. The study would be due to lawmakers in 2015.

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