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Capital Punishment - Expense And Length Of Process

death corpus row habeas

Though an execution itself is inexpensive--less than $1,000, according to one estimate--the legal process itself is extremely costly. The state often pays expenses for both the prosecution and the defense. Because of the two-part process, capital trials are more expensive than others. Death sentences undergo a mandatory review in the state appeal process, and often this step is only the beginning on a sequence of delays as defendants file multiple appeals. In 36 of the states condoning capital punishment, automatic reviews of the trials are required. Prisoners also frequently file petitions for writ of habeas corpus in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions.

The average time for an inmate on death row is 11 years. The Supreme Court has consistently declined to determine whether an extremely lengthy wait on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, although in a 1995 case two justices noted concern regarding an inmate who had awaited execution for 17 years. The Supreme Court did rule the government must supply counsel to indigent death row inmates seeking habeas corpus review. But a shortage of available lawyers commonly added further to the delay.

In 1996, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act went into effect, significantly curtailing habeas corpus appeals. The law generally required state death row prisoners to file their petitions within six months after exhausting all state appeals. In addition, the law instructed federal judges to defer to state courts on constitutional and other issues, unless the ruling by the lower court was "unreasonable." Previously, federal courts often intervened when constitutional issues were presented in habeas corpus petitions. An estimated 558 death sentences were found unconstitutional between January of 1973 and May of 1990.

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