Monday, 2 May 2011

SBS: Arizona: Vandergriff and the cost of the death penalty

April 20, 2011
The Mohave County Attorney’s Office has decided to withdraw its motion to seek the death penalty against a Kingman resident accused of sexually abusing and killing a 1-month-old boy last year, citing financial constraints tied to state budget policies.

Until the motion was filed Tuesday, the case was one of two pending capital cases in the county. With the state holding back a combined $35 million to Mohave and four other counties to balance Arizona’s budget, there aren’t enough funds in Mohave County to try both matters as death-penalty cases, said Deputy County Attorney Gregory McPhillips, who along with County Attorney Matt Smith made the decision.
The lone remaining capital case before the county is that of Darrell Ketchner, 53, also of Kingman. He is accused of fatally stabbing 18-year-old Ariel Allison, of Kingman, while she was defending her mother, Jennifer Allison, 35, from Ketchner’s rage around 10:48 p.m. on July 4, 2009.
“It’s not a decision that sits well with me,” McPhillips said. “But it is a decision I agree with. We could pursue justice blindly and say we don’t care what is costs,” McPhillips said. “But we are here to serve the people of the county. We can’t break the county to pursue one particular case. This was a hard decision, but it was responsible With the murder of a baby, there are incredibly complex genetic, medical and legal issues making the case a much more difficult case for the state to prove, the deputy county attorney continued.
Vandergriff, 25, is charged with sexually and physically abusing the infant on June 15, 2010, at a residence in the 300 block of Sea Creek Drive in Kingman, according to the Bullhead City Police Department.
The baby boy was taken to Western Arizona Regional Medical Center in Bullhead. His body was bruised and he had sores, red and swollen eyes, broken ribs, a broken femur, malnutrition and dehydration. The child also showed signs of brutal sexual abuse and shaken-baby syndrome, police said. In critical condition, the boy was airlifted by medical helicopter to Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas, where he was pronounced dead on June 16.
Vandergriff, who is the child’s father, and Staci L. Barbosa, the baby’s mother, were both arrested.
According to the county’s website, Vandergriff is charged with first-degree murder, child abuse, sexual assault and sexual conduct of a minor. He now will face prosecution as a first-degree murder defendant, who’d face up to life in prison if convicted.
The decision to withdraw the motion to try the matter as a capital case was based on a move by the state to take back $1.3 million in funds to Mohave County — a mandatory transfer in order to balance Arizona’s budget. According to County Supervisor Association of Arizona documents, Mohave is currently one of five counties whose general funds were targeted for a combined $38.6 million to help balance the state’s budget for this fiscal year. The impact and amount is compared to two counties targeted for a combined $38.4 million last fiscal year.

County Financial Breakdown
The state’s decision didn’t sit well with County Supervisor Buster Johnson, R-Dist. 3. “We have to give them $1.3 million to help balance the state budget,” said Buster Johnson, R-Dist. 3. “These are harsh realities that are being made by our state legislators when (state legislators) are grandstanding for higher political office.”
The individual sums of county general-fund sweeps include Maricopa County at $26.3 million; Pima County at $6.7 million; Pinal County at $2.5 million; Yavapai County at $1.4 million; and Mohave County — with the smallest sum of $1.3 million owed.
With other sweeps of state revenues earmarked for counties in Arizona, state legislators seek a total of $93.4 million to balance the state budget. The total is an additional $16 million more than last year’s combined $77 million from counties. Overall, the sweeps translate to a two-year grand total of $170.4 million from 15 counties to subsidize state spending.
In Mohave County, the general fund transfer and other sweeps equal a $3.8 million impact this fiscal year, which is $2 million more than last year’s $1.8 million paid to the state under similar circumstances.
McPhillips, who originally sought to try Vandergriff’s as a capital case, said he doesn’t recall being forced into such a decision before, but then again, he can remember such challenging financial times, either.
“It’s a difficult time for our county,” McPhillips said. “The fact the state is looking at the county to pay $1.3 million — I don’t know if things are going to get better over the next year,” he said.
In making its decision, the County Attorney’s Office weighed the strength of its cases against Vandergriff and Ketchner, as well as the financial implications of moving forward with each matter.

Death Penalty Case Costs
“The county has a lot more money in the Ketchner case,” said Mohave County Deputy County Manager Dana Hlavac, Criminal Justice Services. “We’ve invested about $200,000, compared to Vandergriff, which we have invested $60,000 in defense costs, that’s not including prosecution costs.”
Under the law, anybody facing a potential death sentence is entitled to two attorneys. The attorneys must have special qualifications and be approved by the Arizona Supreme Court to try death penalty cases. In Mohave County, there are only three attorneys certified to handle such cases, Hlavac said.The county provides attorneys for the defendant and often has to look statewide to one willing to take on the case. When one is found, a special contract is employed, and the attorney’s rates can range from $120 to $150 per hour.

Vandergriff’s attorney, Creighton Cornell, of Creighton Cornell Law, Tucson, bills at $100 hour, Hlavac said.
Hlavac said studies have proved post-conviction costs tied to executing a someone given the death penalty — which could take as many as 20 years with appeals — is much more expensive than a life sentence in prison.
On average, a death penalty case costs about $2 million, compared to $30,000 a year to house a prisoner serving a life sentence. In other words, a prisoner would have to live to 100 before he or she costs the government what it requires to handle a death-penalty case.
“It is a very, very brave and commendable thing Matt did,” Hlavac said. “It’s not easy at all. The integrity it shows to do something like that for the betterment of the county.”
Hlavac said the matter against Ketchner, the county’s sole pending death penalty case, is about a year away from going to trial. The county has spent about $100,000 on the case,

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