Death (penalty) and taxes

“It’s time to stop playing the killing game. Let’s use the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death.”

—Retired California judge Donald A McCartin, a.k.a. “the hanging judge of Orange County”

Exhibit A: A 30-year-old crime in the Nevada desert, between Battle Mountain and Winnemucca. In 1980, Ronnie Milligan, honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, was sentenced to death for murdering a 77-year-old Las Vegas woman and robbing her of $20.

At a new hearing in 2010, evidence showed Milligan might have been framed by his friends. One friend, Ramon Houston, had testified against Milligan in 1980. Houston had been arrested with blood on his clothes and the woman’s purse in his possession. Officials later discovered a letter written by Houston stating that he had killed the woman and that Milligan had not been present. A co-defendant signed an affidavit agreeing that Milligan had not been at the killing, that friends pinned the crime on Milligan when they realized he’d been too drunk to remember what happened.

Milligan served 30 years on death row in maximum-security prison. Houston served a year in county jail, never charged.

Last year, Milligan’s sentence was commuted by a judge who expressed “grave reservations” about the man’s guilt. In February, Milligan, now 60, was set free. He plans to attend community college in Reno.

Milligan’s case illustrates an imperfect justice system in which testimony of malicious “friends” might land on death row a person whose only crime is drunkenness.

When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a death penalty ban into law in March, he told reporters, “To have a consistent, perfect death penalty system … that’s impossible in our state.”

In Nevada, a recent death penalty debate is driven by the cost of the capital punishment system, from trials by jury to expert witnesses, appeals, psychiatric evaluations and incarceration on death row. In California, a recent report estimated California could save $125.5 million annually by replacing the death penalty with sentences of life without parole.

A bill introduced in Nevada last week, AB 501, calls for a study of the death penalty’s cost to Nevada taxpayers. The bill would put the practice on hold for two years while the state figures out how much it pays to impose the ultimate punishment.

“Some think it’s coarse to talk about money and lives,” says Eryn Jane Branch, interim executive director of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “But taxpayers are paying more to implement a policy that’s questionable in ethics and logic. I suspect most people might not know that the death penalty is far more expensive than life without parole.”

That’s the conclusion reached by retired California judge Donald McCartin, who now advocates for the elimination of capital punishment. McCartin sentenced 10 men to death between 1978 and 1993. At the time he felt the men “deserved to die at the hands of the state,” as McCartin writes in a March column in the Los Angeles Times. None were ever executed. Over the decades, McCartin came to appreciate a system that ensures the death penalty process is “scrupulously fair.” But a fair system costs millions of dollars and, as studies show, it does nothing to deter crime.

Other Western nations have banned capital punishment. The practice of state-sponsored executions in the United States (46 in 2010) puts us in the company of China, (thousands of executions in 2010), Iran (252), North Korea (60), Yemen (53), Saudi Arabia (27) and Libya (18), according to Amnesty International’s recent statistics.

“For me, it’s a human rights issue,” says Branch. “I think it’s bad public policy. The more you learn, the more egregious it seems.”