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The High Cost of the Death Penalty

July 13, 2015

The debate surrounding the death penalty has been a long and controversial conversation across America. Producer Terry Murphy explores the true cost of the death penalty, including its tremendous financial impact to taxpayers and the overwhelming emotional price paid by victims' families.

In 1981, Mitchell Rupe walked into an Olympia bank with the intent to rob it. He shot and killed two tellers, one of them Candy Hemmig. When he was convicted, Hemmig’s sister Karil Klingbeil sought the ultimate punishment.

“I wanted him dead for what he had done to the family, to Candy’s children,” said Klingbeil, adding, “I had no sympathy whatsoever. I was in favor of the death penalty.”

Rupe was sentenced to hang, Washington’s primary method of execution. “I thought it would be over by that point," Klingbeil said.

But that was just the beginning. The appeals process dragged on for twenty years, and with each new hearing Klingbeil and her sister’s family were forced to relive Rupe’s dreadful crimes. In the end, Rupe escaped execution altogether. In a landmark case, a federal judge ruled that hanging such a heavy man could result in decapitation, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. Weighing over 400 pounds, Rupe had eaten his way out of death row. He died in prison of natural causes in 2006.

*Personal Restraint Petition/Appeals
Source: Seattle University, Jan. 2015

The overwhelming emotional costs exacted on victims’ families is just one of the exorbitant costs of imposing capital punishment, says a new study by Seattle University headed by law professor Robert Boruchowitz. 

“We found that it costs more than a million dollars more to seek the death penalty than not to seek it,” he explains.

And recent capital cases in King County, like the multiple-murder in Carnation, have cost taxpayers more than $4 million each just at the trial phase. The SU study also finds that 75% of those death penalty verdicts are ultimately reversed anyway. And with the European embargo on lethal drugs used for execution by most states, including Washington, the death penalty has become more impractical. 

The Cost of Recent Cases

Recent death-penalty trials in Washington State have included Christopher Monfort and Joseph McEnroe and his girlfriend, Michele Anderson. In 2009, Monfort shot and killed a Seattle police officer on Halloween night. In 2007, McEnroe and Anderson were charged with six counts of aggravated first-murder for killing Anderson’s family on Christmas Eve. The table below reflects the trial cost of prosecuting and defending the death-penalty on an inmate.

NameProsecuting CostDefending CostTotal Cost (Apprx.)
Christopher MonfortThe cost of prosecuting Monfort is approaching $7 million.1Through the end of March 2015, defending Monfort has reached $5.8 million.2For prosecuting and defending Monfort, the total cost is $12.8 million.1
Joseph McEnroe and Michele AndersonThe combined cost of prosecuting McEnroe and Anderson was roughly $1.06 million through November.3The defense for McEnroe and Anderson has topped $8 million.4To this date, this case is the most expensive case in King County history at more than $10 million, and still ongoing with Anderson’s trial scheduled next year.5

1 Source: Seattle Times, June 2015
2 Source: The Stranger, Nov. 2014
3 Source: Seattle Times, May 2015
4 Source: KIRO, Jan. 2015
5 Source: KING, May 2015

Karil Klingbeir says the more important cost to be considered is the one borne by families like hers, the anguish and pain of the legal process.

“I was wishing it was over,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had signed up for appeal after appeal. With every single appeal and trial there was a repetition of all the horrible stuff that happened.”

Now she has a different opinion of capital punishment.

“The death penalty should be abolished," explains Klingbeil. “We have a much better alternative available, a quicker resolution for family members, for courts, for our financial pocketbooks in the city and the state, federal government, and that’s life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Chart recreated by Pranav Shivanna
Table of recent cases researched and created by Lynn Pham



Made possible in part by

Terry Murphy

Terry Murphy has worked at every TV station in Seattle for a wide variety of local and national shows, including: KCTS9 Connects, Evening Magazine, Dateline, Biography Channel, The Steve Harvey Show, special projects, public affairs and children’s programming. Her work has taken her everywhere from Alaska to Brazil. National and regional awards include American Women in Radio & Television, two Gabriels, PM Magazine National Honors, several regional Emmys and Academy of Religious Broadcasting awards. After almost 30 years in broadcasting, Terry still believes it’s a joy and a privilege to tell other people’s stories…especially here at KCTS9.

More stories by Terry Murphy

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

Vikram Kumar

Vikram’s aspirations in television, film, and digital media are rooted in the creative environment he surrounded himself in as a child. He was born in Starnberg, Germany, and moved to the States when he was three years old. During his childhood in Issaquah, Washington, he would write stories, draw up comic strips, and create short films with his video camera. This mentally stimulating upbringing propelled him to continue his higher education at the University of California—Los Angeles. During his time in Los Angeles, he wrote, directed, and acted in a film for the UCLA Campus Movie Festival. It was his first experience with a camera crew, and it propelled him to take on a position with The Daily Bruin as a Video Journalist. It was at The Daily Bruin that he learned about the nuances inherent in producing documentary style stories on real life narratives.

More stories by Vikram Kumar

Lynn Pham

As a Production Intern at KCTS, Lynn has helped with several projects by researching topics, transcribing footage, assisting in field shoots, and editing 4 videos for the UW Oceanography project. She is currently a senior at the University of Washington Tacoma studying Communications. During her time at UW Tacoma, Lynn became interested in videography after taking 2 classes on the subject. She produced and edited a piece on how women are underrepresented in the science, technology, mathematics, and engineering field. After she graduates, Lynn aspires to work in the multimedia industry as a video production assistant and editor.


More stories by Lynn Pham

There are 5 comments

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Dear KCTS,

Thank you for inviting us to chime in with our thoughts. Here are mine.

In spite of my passions, I refrain from hurting others because my upbringing enhanced my natural human empathy, I can imagine putting myself in others' shoes, and yes, the threat of the death penalty. See? The death penalty works. And yes, human empathy is based, in part, in not wanting to suffer at the hands of others. That is, human empathy is a two way street.

But wait, there's more. I oppose the death penalty because, after all, these are human beings in spite of what they have done to deserve, yes deserve, the death penalty. I'm not convinced by other arguments against capital punishment.

'... were forced to relive Rupe’s dreadful crimes...'
'The overwhelming emotional costs exacted on victims’ families is just one of the exorbitant costs of imposing capital punishment...'

I'm not convinced that these are legitimate reasons to do away with the death penalty. These costs are the responsibility, first, of the criminal, and second, the state for allowing the process to drag on so long. Thus, the state, in my mind, is only slightly less culpable for 'dragging victims' relatives families through appeal after appeal than the perp.

Further, as the state allows the process to drag on appeal after appeal, because, after all, we want to be certain we've got the right perpetuator, right?

Although I'm for live in prison without the possibility of parole and spartan accommodations and NO TV, I still believe the death penalty is fair if our constitutionally required due process includes adherence to a speedy and fair trial. Over the years, it is the death penalty opponents who have succeeded in ensuring such trials are anything but speedy and that capital punishment is as expensive and time-consuming as it is now.

Racially unfair? I'm not convinced.

European companies refusing to manufacture lethal injection drugs. That's no reason for us not to just manufacture the drugs here at home in the US.

Further, whereas the SCOTUS once outlawed the death penalty, they subsequently allowed it. And, as a good citizen, I value each state's power to make use of capital punishment as its inhabitants see fit. That is, it is not my place to tell other states how to conduct their criminal prosecutions and penalties.

Thanks again for asking. It's rare that my opinion is ever given any airtime.

Good night,
John Peeples

I strongly support abolishing the death penalty in Washington State and in the US states which still carries it:
1. reduce costs to WA State's criminal justice system 2. reduce errors in justice system, particularly errors in evidence, errors in the trial process that heavily impact people of color and the poor; 3. the death penalty is morally wrong

i view the death penalty as utterly useless and extremely selfish, and that doesn't even include its expense. it is the desire to take vengeance that the bible forbids for us entirely. there is nothing acceptable in taking vengeance on someone who obviously has problems inside themselves they had nothing to do with creating.

I strongly support abolishing the death penalty in Washington State and in the U.S. Law schools are graduating lawyers with appalling legal skills who often have a difficult time finding their way through far more simple matters. These individuals become the prosecuters, defenders and judges in these complicated cases. All executions should be halted until there is a time when the public can feel assured of the quality of individual and education of persons receiving law degrees. Only then will moral issues become relevant to the argument.

My opinion on this subject has changed over the years, but I am becoming more comfortable with life in prison with no exceptions. Since most cases span many years and multiple court trials, no good is gained by simply draging out the penalty phase should a defendant have unlimited resources nor to expect the public treasurey to continue the case with public funds. The positive side of discontinuing the death penalty would be, should evidence later show an error was made the judgement can be reversed.