Saturday, March 24, 2007
From the DPIC: Because of the high costs of pursuing death penalty cases, Georgia's public defender system has run out of funds. Most of state's 72 capital cases have been brought to a standstill. The judge in one recent high-profile case has put off jury selection until September 10 because of the funding crisis.
The high-profile case involves Brian Nichols, who has been charged with the 2005 courthouse shooting that left a judge, and three other victims dead. Because the death penalty is being sought for Nichols, the case has cost the state's public defender system $1.4 million to date, an expense that has led the office to request $9.5 million in additional funding from the legislature to keep its operations running through the end of June 2007. (Nichols has agreed to plead guilty and accept life without parole if the death penalty option is dropped.) Mike Mears, director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which manages the public defender system, said the Nichols case "is testing the will of the state of Georgia with regard to whether or not the death penalty is worth the amount it costs."
Judge Hilton Fuller, who is presiding over the Nichols case, said the "issue of funding" and the "complexities of this case have prevented an orderly and uninterrupted" method of proceeding. The state has assigned five prosecutors to the case, and Fuller, who is personally overseeing the defense counsel's spending, has authorized four defense attorneys for Nichols. Fuller said the Public Defender Standards Council had done all it could to pay expenses in the case, but he added, "We cannot expect it to provide funds that don't exist." At least one of the three private attorneys representing Nichols is billing the state at half the hourly rate he normally charges.
Georgia is not the only state grappling with the high costs of the death penalty. The Colorado House Judiciary Committee recently voted to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. The state would reallocate money currently spent on capital punishment to help solve approximately 1,200 cold-case homicides. Colorado, which has spent $40 million on capital punishment in 30 years, has executed one person and two others are on death row. In Arizona, Maricopa County has been overwhelmed by a surge in death penalty cases. Officials there have said that prosecutors may not seek the death penalty in some cases to save money.