The Cost of Death

by TChris

When an accused murderer is willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole, does it make sense to insist on a death penalty trial? Can a judge accept a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence over the objections of death-seeking prosecutors? These are the questions posed by Jonathan Mills in New Haven, who has been trying to plead guilty for three years.

In their motion to be filed this week, Mills' lawyers argue that Judge [Jon] Blue "has the inherent discretionary sentencing power" to accept Mills' plea. Prosecutors' insistence on the death penalty, the motion says, "is irrelevant to the court's sentencing powers."

If Blue agrees, he could provide finality for the families of victims and murderer alike. He would also save Connecticut taxpayers money--at least $1 million, probably much more.

Connecticut has not executed a prisoner since 1960. Assuming that prosecutors are successful in their efforts to persuade jurors that death is the appropriate penalty for Mills, it may take decades for post-conviction proceedings to conclude, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $2.5 million (an estimate that the New Haven Advocate suggests may be "ridiculously low"), far more than the cost of imprisoning Mills for the rest of his life.

Is it worth it?

Connecticut's criminal justice resources are scarce. Court dockets are crowded. Prosecutors and defenders alike agree to plea bargains just to move cases through the system--whether or not justice is served.

Even some police officers agree that seeking the death penalty is a waste of resources that could be used more productively.

"Connecticut would be a safer place," West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci told a legislative committee last year on behalf of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, "if we took the resources that we spend on futile attempts to execute killers and apply them to protecting the innocent and jailing the guilty."

Whether a judge has the authority to accept a guilty plea conditioned on a life sentence when prosecutors insist on seeking the death penalty is an interesting question. It is not a question the judge should be required to answer. Prosecutors in Mills' case should understand that they serve the public, and that the public is not well served by committing scarce resources to the insanely expensive pursuit of vengence and retribution.

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