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The $14 Million Death Sentence

Louisiana tried to sentence five men to death for the murder of a prison guard. It wasn’t cheap.

It has been well-documented that death penalty cases are notoriously expensive to pursue. Recent news reports placed the total cost of Jodi Arias’ murder case in Arizona above $3.2 million, and the Casey Anthony trial in Florida at roughly $700,000. Had either woman been sentenced to death, the appeals process would have continued to cost the state for years to come.

The cases of the Angola 5 — a group of men who failed to escape from the maximum-security prison and killed a guard in the process — have caught the attention of Louisiana lawmakers who are studying the costs of capital punishment in their state. Tallying yearly figures from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Nick Trenticosta, who represented one of the men, estimated that since 1999, the state has paid $14 million for the prosecution and defense of the five prisoners through trials and appeals. None of them have been executed.

“So, after 15 years, and 14 million dollars and counting, only one death sentence resulted,” Trenticosta wrote in an email. “Just think about how much rehab/reentry programs that would fund.”

During the failed escape attempt of six men from Angola prison in 1999 — not to be confused with the Angola 3, who spent decades in solitary confinement for the murder of a guard in 1972 — David Knapps, a correctional officer, was beaten to death with a hammer. One prisoner died of a gunshot wound. Because the five surviving prisoners, who came to be known as the Angola 5, were already serving life in prison, prosecutors aimed for the death penalty. They were mostly unsuccessful; one prisoner pled guilty for a life sentence, and two were convicted, but their juries refused to impose the death penalty. Of the two sentenced to death, one, David Brown, recently had his sentence overturned because prosecutors withheld evidence during his trial. The final member of the Angola 5, Jeffrey Clark, is waiting to be executed; he has an appeal pending before the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Most death penalty cases, from trials to appeals, rack up a large bill for multiple state agencies. In the case of the Angola 5, the Louisiana Department of Corrections has paid for nearly everything, from jurors’ meals to mental health assessments for the defendants to DNA testing of crime scene evidence. When Trenticosta and other attorneys for the men asked the department for cost records, they were able to get a clear, complete picture of how and why death cases are especially expensive. (In December, The Marshall Project reported that prosecutors around the country have been seeking the death penalty less often due to concerns about cost).

The records illustrate how certain costs, which come up in any criminal case, tend to rise substantially when prosecutors seek the death penalty. Over the course of the Angola 5 trials and appeals, the state paid more than $270,000 to The Forensic Panel, a firm that furnishes expert witnesses. By 2012, defense attorney Jim Boren, who defended one of the five men, had billed $1.5 million for five years of work. When asked by a local news station about his tab, Boren said he only took home $400,000 — less than he’d normally charge — and the rest of the money went to mental health experts, crime-scene reconstructors, mitigation investigators (who rarely get hired outside of death penalty cases), and DNA labs.

It is impossible to know what the cost might have been if prosecutors had not opted to seek the death penalty. But since all of the men were already imprisoned for life without the option of parole, not prosecuting them at all would have technically led to the same result.

The price of the Angola 5 prosecution has figured prominently in an ongoing study of death penalty costs by a committee of Louisiana lawmakers, which is expected to conclude by the end of the year. The state, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, is feeling the pressure of a massive criminal justice budget, and is already slashing funds for public defenders.

Likely to enter the debate about the costs of capital punishment in Louisiana are a handful of specific costs in the Angola 5 cases that are not much on their own, but may be questioned by lawmakers or the public. The night after they obtained a guilty verdict against one defendant, in 2011, prosecutors and their staff spent a total of $763.80 for dinner at a country club (divided by the 18 individuals present, that comes out to $42.39 each). Each night, while sequestered for one of the trials, jurors were allowed two alcoholic drinks each. The judge laid this out in an order. “These beverages are to be provided to the jurors each evening only if all trial proceedings have concluded for the day,” the judge wrote, making sure nobody could skirt the rules through legal loopholes: “The jurors are not authorized to order an alcoholic beverage for consumption by another juror.”