Jason Woodbury: Delay on death penalty decision is cause for alarm

On April 6, police recovered the beaten body of William McCune in the Carson River. Within days, four people were arrested in connection with his murder. On April 10, District Attorney Neil Rombardo issued a press release stating he was considering the death penalty. He said a team would be assembled to help him make his decision. Three months later, on July 15, KRNV reported that Mr. Rombardo “might know by the end of this week.” Six weeks later, we’re still waiting. This extreme — virtually unprecedented — delay should alarm Carson City.

Death is different. Ask anyone in the criminal justice system. And while people may debate the death penalty — on both moral and financial terms — there is no debate that current law requires astonishing public expenditures in a capital case. A defendant facing the death penalty is entitled to two attorneys, not just one. Defense attorneys must be “death certified” and paid a higher rate. Dr. Terance Miethe of UNLV determined the trial defense for a single defendant in a capital murder case costs around $200,000 more than a non-capital case. And that is only a portion of the additional costs.

Bound by the law, judges have no meaningful ability to control these expenses. Only the district attorney does. As such, there should be a prompt decision by the D.A. to either pursue the death penalty or not. Indecision gambles taxpayer dollars on the massive costs of capital procedures in what might be a non-capital case.

While Mr. Rombardo has been mulling the choice in this case, a total of eight attorneys have been appointed to represent the defendants. All are being paid at public expense. At public expense, defense investigators and expert witnesses have been hired. Through Aug. 15, Carson City taxpayers have paid over $78,000 for the defense. But it’s worse than that. To date, not a single witness has testified and not a single piece of evidence has been presented to a jury. In fact, a trial is still many months — and hundreds of thousands of dollars — away.

The potential waste of taxpayer money, though maddening, is not even the worst consequence of the district attorney’s indecisiveness. The D.A. might very well be painting himself into a corner, where he sees no choice but to pursue the death penalty rather than accepting responsibility for wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. And that is the real tragedy. The adage is true. Death is different. But the objective in a capital case is the same as every other case — justice. If these four ought to face the ultimate penalty for Mr. McCune’s murder, justice — not political necessity — should dictate that outcome.

Jason Woodbury is an attorney in Carson City.


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