Seattle University study finds death penalty cases in Washington cost at least $1 million more than similar cases where the death penalty is not sought

An in-depth study by four Seattle University professors found costs related to pursuing the death penalty are about 1.4 to 1.5 times more than when a prosecutor does not seek death.

Combining all cost categories, the average cost of a death penalty case in Washington is $3.07 million, compared to $2.01 million (in 2010 dollars) for cases in which the prosecutor does not seek death. Adjusted to 2014 dollars, that difference is $1.15 million.

These are among the conclusions of a seven-month study, "An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Seeking the Death Penalty in Washington State." (PDF)

The purpose was to estimate the costs associated with pursuit of the death penalty, as compared to cases where the death penalty was not sought, for aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington. The study was limited to economic cost estimation only. It was developed to provide accurate estimates to inform debate and decision-making by policy makers and the public.

This is the most rigorous empirical study done on the costs of the death penalty in Washington, say the principal authors, Professor from Practice Robert Boruchowitz from the School of Law and Professor Peter Collins from the Criminal Justice Department. The study was funded by a grant from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation. The ACLU-WF had no role in conducting the research and did not influence the analysis and formulation of conclusions.

Highlights from the report

  • Researchers examined 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases since 1997 and reviewed data from more than 40 different sources. 
  • The average trial level defense costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 2.8 to 3.5 times more expensive than cases not seeking the death penalty. 
  • Average trial level prosecution costs in death penalty cases are 2.3 to 4.2 times more expensive. 
  • Court, police/sheriff, and miscellaneous costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 3.9 to 8.1 times as much. 
  • Average jail costs related to pursuit of the death penalty are 1.4 to 1.6 times more expensive than for non-death cases. Assuming a life sentence for all offenders, post-conviction lifetime incarceration costs (DOC) are .7 to .8 times that of DPNS cases. See Figure: Average Costs Associated with an Aggravated First-Degree Murder Case.
  • Since 1981, 75 percent of death penalty cases that have completed their review have resulted in reversal compared to a 7.5 percent reversal rate of the 201 non-death penalty appeals. 
  • There are nine cases currently on appeal in either state or federal courts. There have been five executions. 

The report notes that the Washington Supreme Court requires at least two lawyers who are experienced in capital cases be appointed for the trial and also for the direct appeal of death penalty cases.

A chart showing the higher costs when the death penalty is sought compared to when the death penalty is not sought.
Figure: Average Costs Associated with an Aggravated First-Degree Murder Case


Robert C. Boruchowitz
Professor from Practice and Director of the Defender Initiative