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This study assesses the death penalty's costs to Maryland taxpayers by examining a sample of the 1,136 death-eligible murder cases occurring between 1978 and 1999. We find that an average capital-eligible case in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty will cost approximately $1.1 million over the lifetime of the case. A capital-eligible case in which prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty will cost $1.8 million and a capital-eligible case resulting in a death sentence will cost approximately $3 million. In total, we forecast that the lifetime costs to Maryland taxpayers of these capitally-prosecuted cases will be $186 million.
Prior research on the costs of capital punishment in other states unambiguously finds that
capital cases are more expensive to prosecute than non-capital cases. However, much of the past
research relied on limited data and generally studied only a small number of cases. This study tests
whether the death penalty resulted in additional costs to Maryland taxpayers and fills a gap in the
extant literature by accounting for potentially confounding factors not addressed in prior studies.
A retrospective observational design was used to evaluate this question. Data used in this
analysis were developed from several sources. The foundation for the analysis is case data collected
by University of Maryland researchers for a 2004 study of disparities in the application of the death
penalty in Maryland (Paternoster, Brame, Bacon and Ditchfield 2004). Paternoster and colleagues
identified homicides that were eligible to be prosecuted as capital cases in Maryland. His sample
includes all cases where the murder occurred between August 1978 and September 1999. From
these data, we identified a census of death-eligible, guilty-verdict cases with 1,136 observations,
including 162 cases in which a death notice was filed, and 56 death sentences. We estimate the total
cost of processing these cases.
In order to estimate the costs of each stage of case processing, we turned to two additional
sources. First, we searched administrative databases containing official records on individual case
processing, using the Maryland Judiciary Case Search (MDJCS) database and the federal PACER
database. All records that matched our sample were coded into our research database. Second,
estimates of the time attorneys, judges and support staff spent processing these cases were
developed from semi-structured interviews and survey data.
Complete administrative data on case processing were available for 509 of the 1,136 cases. This
sample of 509 cases was weighted to resemble the population of 1,136. In addition, a propensity
score analysis was conducted to adjust estimates to account for the possibility that capitally prosecuted cases may have been more egregious, on average, than the typical case that did not
receive a death notice. If true, these cases would have been more expensive to prosecute even if no
death statute had been in place. Finally, we estimate the cost to Maryland taxpayers associated with
each stage of case processing.
We estimated two key costs: 1) those associated with the filing of a death notice; and, 2) those
associated with the imposition of a death sentence. We compared the costs for these cases with the
cost of processing a capital-eligible case in which no death notice was filed. In this study, the nodeath-
notice cases represent the cost of processing a felony homicide case in Maryland as if there
was no death penalty.
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