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Death penalty cases cost state twice as much lesser punishments

Nevada murder cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty can cost nearly twice as much as those with a lesser punishment, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

Death penalty cases cost the public, on average, $1.03 million to $1.31 million, according to the audit. In a murder case in which capital punishment is not sought, the average cost is $775,000. In those cases, prosecutors typically seek life without parole.

“It’s pretty clear that the death penalty does not save money,” said Addie Rolnick, professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas Boyd Law School.

The 105-page audit came after the 2013 Legislature ordered a review of the costs of capital punishment. The audit, which took 18 months, looked at the price of trials, appeals and jail time for 28 Nevada cases.

Manpower for lawyers was given as estimates, the audit said, so the actual cost could be higher.

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, chairwoman of a legislative subcommittee on the death penalty, said after the audit was released that the estimates were “disconcerting.” Public employees asked to provide that information should be held accountable, said Carlton, D-Las Vegas.

Even with cheaper costs, the audit could be met with some resistance.

“One response to the study might be to just kill them sooner, but that isn’t how our criminal justice system works,” Rolnick said. “If you take that to its logical extreme, you could just put someone to death without a trial.”

The audit will give lawmakers a guide to change death penalty laws in the 2015 Legislature.

“We certainly hope that all legislators and all Nevadans pay attention to the results because it shows just how much we are paying to maintain a broken system,” said Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “We think it’s a very ineffective penalty and should be replaced by life without the possibility of parole.”

Since 2007, six states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois and New Mexico — have abolished the death penalty. Some states got rid of it more than a century ago.

Thirty-two states still have the death penalty.

In the 37 years since the death penalty was reinstated in Nevada, 12 death row inmates have been executed. The last execution took place more than eight years ago when 47-year-old murderer Daryl Linnie Mack was put to death via lethal injection.

Mack was executed for the rape and murder of a Reno woman, Betty Jane May, in 1988. There have been 73 state executions in Nevada’s history, 12 since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.

Eighty-two inmates sit on death row in Nevada. The death penalty applies only to first-degree murder cases.

The longest resident on the state’s death row is Patrick McKenna, who was sentenced in 1979 for killing his Clark County jail cellmate.

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