Under the Hat: Need to Make Sense - WICU12 HD WSEE Erie, PA News, Sports, Weather and Events

Under the Hat: Need to Make Sense

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I spent some time this week looking into the expenses that go along with a death penalty trial.

The issue came up during a hearing for James Duncan, in which his taxpayer funded attorneys argued that they had neither the time nor the money to mount an adequate defense for the planned July trial.

Duncan could face the death penalty if convicted of the brutal sexual assault murder of Nikkia Sawyer, who was found in her Highpoint Towers apartment bound, gagged and stabbed some 60 times.

Judge Dan Brabender said he would not delay the trial but would make extra funds available for expert witnesses.

The courts set a $20,000 limit on attorney and expert fees, twice the amount of a murder trial where the death penalty is not in play.  

Many believe the cap, set years ago, doesn't reflect modern expenses.

The Duncan defense is already $6,000 over the cap with more experts to come, some costing $250 an hour and up.

The conclusion is simple. Death penalty cases cost taxpayers more.

Only three people have been put to death in Pennsylvania since the law changed in 1978 and all three stopped the appeal process on their own.

In other words, no one that uses the appeal process has been put to death in Pennsylvania in 35 years.

You can't blame prosecutors. The law says the death penalty should be sought if the facts warrant.

And you can't blame defense lawyers for wanting the best case possible. In fact, we're told the worst case for taxpayers would be to deny the defense a witness which creates a successful appeal. Then the trial happens all over again and so do all the costs.

No, it's up to lawmakers in Harrisburg to either create a fair but finite death penalty appeal process or remove the death penalty as an option, sparing local juries the decision and local taxpayers the cost.

The law needs to make sense. In this case, it doesn't.

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