Friday, October 9, 2015

Death Penalty Defense Costs - The Real Culprit

The Bryan College Station Eagle ran a story this morning (10/09/2015) about the costs of getting Gabriel Hall to a death penalty verdict. The story lede:
The Brazos County District Attorney’s Office will spend less than $80,000 on Gabriel Paul Hall’s capital murder trial, a spokesperson said, with Hall’s defense costing more than 10 times more.
The story is accurate but does not really tell the whole story. The take away is the Brazos County District Attorney's office kept their cost reasonable, while the defense went on a budget busting spending spree.

So let us talk about the Hall defense cost. It is the Brazos District Attorney's office which is ultimately responsible for the decisions that required the taxpayer money spent to defend Hall. It is also responsible for the cost of every defendant for which they decide to seek death. They know well the money it takes to defend a death case here in the Death Penalty Capital USA.

In my post A Dispatch from Death Penalty Capital USA, I gave the two questions Texas juries are required to answer in the punishment phase of a death penalty case. It is question 2 that is the focus of virtually all death penalty trials:
Whether, taking into consideration all of the evidence, including the circumstances of the offense, the defendant's character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the defendant, there is a sufficient mitigating circumstance or circumstances to warrant that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a death sentence be imposed.
This is referred to as "The Mitigation Question." It is very broad, is it not?

The Mitigation Question is the reason for the incredibly escalating costs of death penalty trials. It is the question the Texas legislature and Governor has given us for death penalty juries to answer.

The Mitigation Question requires what is called "womb to tomb" investigation. The question and the instructions given to juries (again courtesy of the lege and govn'r) tell them they can consider any single circumstance or circumstances as mitigating against the imposition of death. WHAMOO. A money bleed of biblical proportions ensues because the defense team scours the defendant's past - from womb to tomb - trying to find any kind of mitigation evidence, however small, that might resonate years later with a jury.

The American Bar Association Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of
Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases (ABA Guidelines) have very stringent requirements for lawyers defending death penalty cases. Gone are the days when some civil lawyer with no trial experience is appointed to defend a death case.

The ABA Guidelines provide the standard of care for all death penalty defense attorneys. Lawyers not following the Guidelines will have a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel made against them at some point years after verdict. As it should be.

This is another reason Halls' defense cost so much money. Not only were they required to do "womb to tomb" investigation, they have to anticipate "emerging trends" in the law under the ABA Guideline requirements. Remember their homework as it relates to their trial representation of Hall is being graded until the verdict of death is carried out.

Diagnostic testing, forensic psychologists, Intellectual Disability testing. School records, medical records, traveling with the defense "team", at least two lawyers, an investigator and so on to interview people who may be able to supply that single, elusive mitigating fact. In Halls' case that meant traveling to the Philippines. Twice.

The Brazos County District Attorney's office knew when it sought the death penalty for Gabriel Hall the price tag was going to be hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars. So to imply, as The Eagle story running today does, that the Brazos County DA's office was fiscally responsible while the Hall defense bled Brazos County taxpayer red ink all over the world does not tell the complete story. It is, in my view, a little disingenuous.

Christian Olsen, whose death penalty verdict was reversed on appeal, is the next person in the Brazos County D.A.'s office death penalty crosshairs. The cost of re-trying Olsen for death will undoubtedly cost the taxpayers of Brazos County close to the figures run up in Hall. At least in the aggregate of the 2 trials. After Olsen, the DA's office will have to wait and see if John Thessen will have to re-tried based on the IAC findings Judge Travis Bryan made regarding the trial performance of his lawyers. There are two other cases that are in the pipeline that could yet go capital-death, but decisions on those have not been made.

Disclosure: I represent the defendant in one of those two case.

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