The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

January 4, 2014

Needle difficult sentence for DAs

Costly trials, appeals result in no Pa. executions in 15 years

By Ashley M. Wislock  and Francis Scarcella

The Daily Item


SUNBURY — The Northumberland County district attorney’s office faces an uphill battle should it pursue the death penalty against a Selinsgrove couple facing murder charges in the stabbing of a Port Trevorton resident.

Capital murder trials, subsequent death sentences and the lengthy appeals process can cost up to $3 million, three times more than those that end in life sentences.

Even if Elytte and Miranda Barbour were convicted in the slaying of Troy LaFerrara in November and sentenced to death, Pennsylvania has not executed an inmate since July 1999, and has carried out only three lethal injections since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

And should Pennsylvania decide to execute an inmate, it — like other states — may have difficulty in obtaining the lethal cocktail used to carry out the sentence.

The Barbours were arrested within days of each other in December after Sunbury police say they lured LaFerrara, 42, into a vehicle and strangled and fatally stabbed the married civil engineer 20 times.

After the arrests, Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini was asked whether he would seek the death penalty. Rosini has said only that his office would look into it.

Pennsylvania is one of 32 states that has the death penalty. There are 18 aggravating circumstances that can lead to a capital murder conviction.

Several of those may apply to the Barbour case, including that the offense was committed during the commission of another specified felony — in this case, robbery; and if a jury decides the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or depraved, or involved torture.

However, there are other considerations that factor into whether a prosecutor decides to pursue a death sentence.

The cost is exponentially higher than that of a noncapital trial, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Every part of a death-penalty case is longer and therefore more expensive,” he said.

Jury selection can take weeks, as potential jurors have to be questioned not just on their thoughts about the case, but about the death penalty, Dieter said.

While varying greatly from case to case, an average death sentence costs about $3 million — from the initial trial through all the appeals, Dieter said. A life sentence may cost about $1 million, he said.

“It’s about three times more expensive (for a death penalty),” he said.

Even if one or both Barbours were to be sentenced to death, it is unlikely that a death sentence would be carried out, based on the state’s system — which Dieter called “highly inefficient.”

While Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest death-row population in the nation at 198, including four women, the state has a very low rate of execution.

Of the three inmates executed since 1976, all — including Keith Zettlemoyer, of Selinsgrove, who was lethally injected in 1995 — chose to forgo their appeals processes, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“No case that has gone through the whole process ended with an execution in over 40 years,” Dieter said.

That means Pennsylvania is, essentially, sentencing people to life in prison — but using the most expensive legal methods to do so, Dieter said.

“The idea is that they’re executed and from that point on, you don’t have to pay for them, but if there’s no execution at the other end, it’s a life sentence but obtained through the most expensive way in the criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s the worst of both worlds.”

Yet a death sentence can be attractive to some members of the public who believe it is the ultimate justice for a heinous act.

“When you hear the description of the terrible crime, it’s a way to evoke your gut anger and emotion,” he said. “Once the public hears that, they don’t have any mercy for the defendant.”

If Pennsylvania begins carrying out death sentences, it faces another major obstacle, Dieter said — the availability and viability of the lethal cocktail used to carry out the sentence.

Many states face a shortage of pentobarbital sodium, one of often three drugs used in carrying out lethal injections, because a global manufacturer has decided to quit selling the drug to corrections agencies.

“Pennsylvania is going to eventually face a problem that other states who are carrying out executions are facing,” he said. “But you don’t worry about that when you’re not even having execution dates.”

 

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