You Get What You Pay For

A story in yesterday’s Tennessean described an overburdened and under-resourced public defenders office in Nashville that does not have the ability to defend any more capital cases at this time.

In the story, Assistant Public Defender Mike Engle explained the public defenders’ office currently has just a few attorneys who are qualified to defend capital cases, two of whom are already working on one case and the other who is preparing to retire.  Others at the office are already supervising other public defenders, making it impossible to also take on a death penalty case. Engle referenced the American Bar Association estimation that a typical death penalty case takes upward of 2,000 hours of preparation as it is the most serious and complicated of cases to defend.

Dawn Deaner, Nashville’s public defender, states, “There are maximum caseload standards that are recommended for public defenders in Tennessee. If you apply those standards to the number of cases we handled in fiscal year ’13, we were 22 lawyers short in our office to be able to handle the workload that we have.”

If Tennessee wants the death penalty, the state will have to pay for it. Already our state is spending untold millions on a system that has executed six people in 53 years, and we are still not spending nearly enough to ensure that each defendant has adequate representation at trial. When are we going to figure out that we can’t afford the death penalty?

In the legislative Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that met from 2007-2009, David Raybin, the attorney who wrote Tennessee’s death penalty statute, called the death penalty a “luxury item” in the state’s budget. He told the committee, “if you want to do it right, be prepared to pay for it.”

The state of Tennessee is not prepared to pay for it, and if fact, does not want to  know what we are already paying for it as our state has no centralized method of tracking the comprehensive costs. With alternatives available to us that are less expensive and don’t risk the lives of the innocent, individuals who themselves may have had little defense at trial because of the very issues outlined in this article, why would we continue to utilize the death penalty?

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