State executions at slowest pace in 15 years
edited: Monday, April 18, 2011
By Diana E Harrington
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, July 26, 2009
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SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE
State executions at slowest pace in 15 years
By Tom Coyne / Associated Press
Posted: June 14, 2009
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Indiana has gone two years without an execution for the first time since the mid-1990s, when it put five inmates to death, and prosecutors say the decline could be a sign of things to come.
“We’re running out of death row inmates,” said Clark County Prosecutor Steven Stewart, who maintains a pro-death penalty Web site.
Indiana, which reinstated the death penalty in 1977, has handed down 93 death sentences since 1980, including 35 between 1984 and 1988. But the last person put to death was Michael Lambert, who was executed on June 15, 2007, for fatally shooting a Muncie police officer 16 years earlier. Only two death sentences have been imposed since 2004.
The decline is part of a larger national shift away from the death penalty. The number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. dropped from 326 in 1995 to 115 in 2007, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Prosecutors and death penalty experts say time and money issues are driving the decline, which has prompted several states to move to abolish the death penalty.
In March, New Mexico repealed its death penalty, just as New Jersey had two years earlier. Last month, the Colorado Senate rejected a proposal to abolish the death penalty by one vote. Eight other states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and a law professor at Catholic University in Washington.
“Every state is facing budget crises, so the debate of whether to keep it has been more poignant this year,” Dieter said.
“Prosecutors know that you may get a death sentence, but you may get it overturned and even if it’s upheld it’s going to take 13 to 15 years to get to the execution, and the victims’ families are going to be put through a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Given all of that, it may not be worth seeking the death penalty except in rare cases.”
A 2002 study ordered by then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon found defense and appeals in a capital murder cost an average of $623,668, compared with $77,684 for a life without parole trial. In the latter case, counties received a 40 percent reimbursement from the state, while counties shoulder half the cost of a death penalty case.
The defense costs alone for Daniel Ray Wilkes, who received the death penalty in 2008 for killing Donna Claspell, 38, and her daughters Avery Pike, 13, and Sydne Claspell, 8, in their Evansville home two years earlier, were $578,758.
Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco says he has more reservations about seeking the death penalty than he had 15 years ago because of the rising costs.
Levco was a deputy prosecutor when he convicted Donald Ray Wallace Jr. of killing a family of four while burglarizing their Evansville home in 1980. He waited 25 years to see Wallace put to death.
Levco, who has prosecuted four cases that led to death sentences, now serves on an Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council committee that advises other prosecutors on whether a case is a strong capital murder case. He said he still believes the death penalty should be used in heinous crimes, but the costs might sway him in a borderline case.
He doesn’t think support for the death penalty has waned in Indiana, but he believes public defenders are using the costs as an effective strategy.
“Whereas the defense and the public defenders get state money to help, the prosecution doesn’t get nearly the same type of assistance in paying for death penalty trials,” he said. “There’s more than a few small counties that have filed death penalty cases who after they’ve gone through it for a while have just thrown up their hands and have said, ’I give.”’
Paula Sites, assistant executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said death penalty cases cost more because they involve more than a finding of guilt or innocence. Experts also have to be called in to evaluate the psychological and social history of the accused to determine whether there are any mental illnesses or other factors that could affect a death sentence.
“It’s very slow and painstaking, and the bottom line is you can’t just go to a family member or a client and just ask these questions by just running down a list: “Did you ever molest your son? Did you ever beat him on the head, or anything like that?”’ she said.
Diana Harrington, whose sister Theresa Gilligan, brother-in-law Patrick, 5-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew were murdered by Wallace, doesn’t think money should be a factor in the decisions.
“Cost itself is probably a minor issue when it comes to what the purpose of the death penalty actually is,” she said. “If you have a consensus that says that death penalty deters crime, then that would be the major issue and the cost would come.”
Attorney Alan Freedman, who represented Lambert on appeal, believes this two-year stretch without an execution is a glimpse into the future.
“The death penalty in Indiana will become an oddity,” he said.
But no one expects Indiana to go another year without an execution.
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal of Matthew Wrinkles of Evansville, who was convicted for the 1994 murder of his estranged wife and two of her relatives. The Indiana Supreme Court is expected to set an execution date for him this summer or fall.