NEW YORK (Reuters) - A perfect storm of cash-strapped budgets, newly elected governors and an increased use of DNA evidence threatens to smite the death penalty in an increasing number of states.
The death penalty got the ax in Illinois last week and stands a good chance of being eliminated this year in Connecticut, Maryland and Montana, where bills are wending their way through statehouses, said Richard Dieter, executive director for the Death Penalty Information Center.
Repeal efforts also are underway in Florida and Kansas, with another expected this week in Ohio, although their success is less likely, Dieter said.
“Innocence is the biggest issue, but what’s getting these bills heard is the cost of the death penalty,” Dieter said.
Studies show the basic cost of carrying out the death sentence is more than double that of a life sentence.
Lawmakers promoting the death-penalty repeal measure in Ohio say they hope to sell it as a way to help close the state’s $8 billion budget deficit.
“We’re proposing this as a way that the state can substantially save some money,” said Democratic state Rep. Ted Celeste.
However, the measure is unlikely to go far in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, where many members were elected with support of death penalty advocates.
If the legislation did pass, Republican Governor John Kasich, who has allowed two executions to proceed during his first three months in office, is unlikely to sign it into law.
Helping fuel repeal measures is the prevalence of DNA evidence in overturning wrongful convictions, not just in the courtroom but in Hollywood dramas that sway popular opinion.
In Illinois, which last week became the fourth state in the past two years to ban the death penalty, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn said it was impossible to fix a system that wrongly condemned 20 men later found to be innocent and freed from death row in his state.
Next could be Connecticut, where newly elected Democratic Governor Dan Malloy has said he favors a death penalty ban now being considered in the statehouse.
The last legislature in Connecticut passed a similar bill but it was vetoed by then-governor Jodi Rell.
The cost of the death penalty is tempting to axe-wielding legislatures desperate to cut costs, Dieter said.
“Death row is expensive compared to regular prison,” he said. “Your meals are delivered. You don’t work in the prison. If you have a visitor, you’re shackled. You’re watched 24 hours. You have a single cell.”
Typically in capital cases, taxpayers pay for at least two defense attorneys as well as DNA experts, he said.
In Maryland, the average total cost of a life sentence is $1 million, compared with $3 million to carry out the death penalty, he said.
In California, the annual cost of imprisoning an inmate is $25,000 compared to $90,000 for a year on death row, Dieter said.
Dudley Sharp, a death penalty advocate, said both the wrongful conviction and budget arguments are overblown.
He said nationwide, only 15 people -- nine on death row and six whose death sentences had been commuted to life -- have been freed due to DNA evidence of their wrongful conviction.
He said the death penalty could be more economical if states imposed tighter time frames for appeals, citing the example of Virginia where he said a case typically lasts five to seven years from conviction to execution.
“Nationwide the average time from conviction to execution is 10 to 11 years,” he said. “You have to be responsible and manage your budgets properly.”
Additional reporting by Jo Ingles in Columbus; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton