Federal Appeals Judge Encourages Reconsideration of Death Penalty in Light of its Exorbitant Cost and Flaws


Federal appellate Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. has joined other state and federal judges in calling for renewed consideration of whether the death penalty is “worth what we are sacrificing to maintain it.” In an April 14 concurring opinion, the longtime judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit emphasized “how expensive the death penalty really is” and how little “the public is getting for its money.”

Last year, United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice Oliver E. Diaz Jr. issued opinions declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. Judge Martin similarly found that efforts by “judges, lawyers, and elected officials” to fashion a fair and constitutional capital-punishment system over the past thirty years “have utterly failed.” The resulting system, according to Judge Martin, is not only unfair, but also “exceedingly expensive to maintain.”

Recent scholarship, reports by state commissions and bar committees, and media investigations demonstrate that the “lifetime cost of a capital case is substantially more than the cost of incarcerating an inmate for life without parole.” Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the automatic alternative to a death sentence in most states, including Alabama.

Eliminating appeals or other trial procedures is not an option, Judge Martin stated, because “experience has shown that every stage of review is needed to guard against wrongful convictions and correct the unusually high rate of error that plagues capital cases.”

In Alabama, seven people have been found not guilty of crimes for which they were originally sentenced to death, and many more death-row prisoners have had their capital convictions or death sentences overturned because of unconstitutional or illegal trials.

Accordingly, Judge Martin concluded that “[m]oral objections aside, the death penalty simply does not justify its expense” when compared to the alternative of life imprisonment without parole.

One “very positive development” is recent media analysis and legislative debate in numerous states about the expense of the death penalty, which shows that “the cost of the death penalty is becoming part of the public debate on capital punishment and has begun to influence policymaking.”

New Mexico recently abolished the death penalty, in part because of concerns about its cost, and Colorado’s legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate the death penalty and used the saved money to fund investigation of unsolved crimes.