The Cost of Killing

The Cost of Killing »Play Video
Thomas Creech
BOISE - Thomas Creech sits and waits on Idaho’s death row.

Creech was already serving a life sentence for a double murder in 1981, when he was convicted of bludgeoning a fellow inmate to death using a sock filled with batteries. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Ada County. But almost three decades later, Creech still doesn't have an execution date.

And your tax money is keeping him alive.

Through a string of appeals over the decades, many of them mandatory in capital cases, Creech waits. And the relatives of his victims wait. And Idaho taxpayers spend.

For that reason alone, Democratic State Senator Elliot Werk of Boise says it's time to toss out the death penalty in Idaho.

"It's just a huge waste of government money and money that could go to other really beneficial uses," says Werk.

Werk admits he also opposes the death penalty on ethical grounds, but says every Idahoan should care on economic grounds.

"We're looking at cutting field trips for third graders, we're not buying text books, we're laying off teachers, we're increasing class sizes, because we don't have sufficient funds to do even the minimum required for our education system,” says Werk. “Why would the people of Idaho want to support a death penalty that results in the waste of millions and millions of dollars?”

Declo Republican State Senator Denton Darrington disagrees. “It doesn't hold any weight with me," says Darrington.

Darrington says the death penalty shouldn't come down to dollars and cents, and feels Idaho would be making a big mistake getting rid of it.

“We do not impose criminal sentences, be it prison sentences or the death penalty, with economics in mind," says Darrington.

But Idaho is facing a budget shortfall of more than $150 million right now. And one death penalty case can cost Ada County alone hundreds of thousands of dollars. Multiply that by the number of people currently on death row, 17, and the cost to state tax payers jumps into the millions.

Since many capital murder defendants can't afford an attorney, states often pay for their prosecution and their defense. It was becoming such a financial burden for Idaho the state was forced to set up the State Appellate Public Defenders Office in 1998 to reduce “an extraordinary burden on the counties of this state."

One of their clients, Darrell Payne, was sentenced to death for the 2000 murder of BSU student Samantha Maher. So far, that one state office has spent more than $37,000 on Payne. The office itself costs Idaho tax payers another $2 million a year just to operate.

2 News attempted to contact Governor Butch Otter several times for his reaction to this story, but for almost a month his office has told us he was too busy to schedule an interview. Instead, we were sent a statement. It reads, in part: The people reserve the right to impose death as a punishment for the most heinous and offensive crimes.”

But for all the money being spent to put inmates to death in Idaho, is it really a punishment if almost nobody is being executed?

More than 30 years ago, the death penalty was reinstated in Idaho. But with only one execution since then, more inmates have died of natural causes on death row than have been put to death.

With just that single execution in Idaho, there's not enough information to compare the cost to life in prison. But other states have done it. A 2003 study by Kansas concluded the cost of capital punishment was about twice as much. Other national studies put the number closer to five times higher.

But Darrington, among others, feels capital punishment should be kept, regardless of the price tag.

"There are those that are philosophically opposed to the death penalty,” says Darrington. “The majority of Idahoans, every survey has shown, do not fall into that category. I philosophically support the death penalty."

Work counters, “My issue is good government. What's good government, what's efficient government, and the death penalty is so costly, and so ineffective, that it's not good government."

The state of Idaho may one day put Thomas Creech to death. But the question for many states, including Idaho, might no longer be whether convicted killers deserve to die, but whether a state can afford to kill them.

Idaho is one of 35 states that still has the death penalty. New Mexico most recently overturned it, back in March. As of right now, no inmate on Idaho's death row has an execution date.