The penalty phase of the trial of the Boston Marathon Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is well under way. The jury heard Tsarnaev’s family from Russia give tearful testimony on Monday of how delicate and emotional he was as a child. Apparently, young Tsarnaev cried when Mufasa died in the Lion King. Even Tsarnaev was seen wiping away tears during the testimony.
While this type of presentation is meant to pull at the heartstrings of the jurors, to humanize Tsarnaev, perhaps it is backfiring. People seem to be absolutely indignant that Tsarnaev can show emotion for his family or himself, but display no remorse for the victims or their families.
This case has sparked heated debates about the death penalty. One justification made by those who are in favor of the death penalty is that it is cheaper just to execute Tsarnaev rather than use our tax dollars to keep him alive. I wondered whether this was true and decided to explore it.
To compare the cost of pursuing a conviction of death versus life imprisonment, we have to look at different scenarios, like (1) what would it cost if Tsarnaev is sentenced to life in prison (2) what would it cost if Tsarnaev is sentenced to death and appeals, and (3) what would it have cost if the death penalty was never on the table and he was sentenced to life in prison.
The first scenario is if the jury sentences Tsarnaev to life in prison without the possibility of parole. To calculate this we have to consider the cost of Tsarnaev’s defense, the cost incurred by the government in prosecuting the case and the cost of caring for Tsarnaev for the rest of his natural life.
There have been two federal death penalty cases in Massachusetts since 1998, not including Tsarnaev’s trial. One of those cases was against Kristin Gilbert, a 30 year old nurse indicted in 1998 for murdering 4 of her patients and attempting to murder 3 others by injecting them with the heart stimulant epinephrine. Ultimately, the jury sentenced her to life in prison. The cost of her defense was approximately $1.6 million. The prosecution in that case spent approximately $350,000 on experts and a jury consultant. The salary of the prosecutors and their investigators are not included. Additionally, it cost $80,000 for stenographers and transcripts and $125,000 for the jurors. That’s $2,155,000 for the cost of a federal capital murder trial that ended in life imprisonment in Massachusetts in 2001. Let’s take that number and assume it is higher now because of inflation and factor in things like the cost of flying Tsarnaev’s family in from Russia. For the sake of argument, let’s make that number $2.5 million.
If Tsarnaev receives life in prison without the possibility of parole, he will likely be housed at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX, the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colorado. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the average cost to house an inmate for one year in a federal prison is $26,309. Tsarnaev is 21 now. If he lives to 71, that means approximately $1,315,450 in government money for his care. That’s just the average. It is probably more expensive to house prisoners at ADX, but let’s assume the average cost for the purposes of this exercise.
That’s a little over $3.3 million for scenario 1.
The second scenario is a little trickier because of all the variables. Let’s limit the scenario to the cost associated with sentencing Tsarnaev to death, him exhausting all of his appeals and ultimately being put to death. In that scenario, we would take the same $2.5 million figure from the cost of trial above and add the cost of the appeals, the cost to care for him during the appeals and the cost to execute him.
There is no data on the cost of appealing a death conviction in Massachusetts, but in 2014, the average cost in Nevada was approximately $140,000. Moreover, the appeals process can take decades. Tsarnaev will have to be housed in a federal prison during that time. Let’s say his appeals take 10 years, multiplied by the $26,309 per year to care for him. That totals $263,090. If his appeals fail, he will be executed by lethal injection and the costs associated with that are minimal and do not need to be factored in.
Scenario 2 is a little over $2.9 million.
So, it appears that those who are in favor of the death penalty are correct that at this stage, it is cheaper to execute Tsarnaev than sentence him to life in prison.
However, let’s look at the third scenario, where the death penalty was never on the table. The average cost of a federal death penalty trial is 8 times more than a federal murder case. This is because in a federal death penalty case, much more is at stake – someone’s life – and no corners are cut. There are usually multiple defense attorneys assigned to ensure competent representation, more experts involved and because there are two phases, the trials are much longer than in a non-death penalty case. So let’s take that $2.5 million figure and divide it by 8. That leaves us with $312,500 for the cost of trial. Add in the $1,315,450 for his care for the rest of his life in ADX.
Scenario 3 is approximately $1.63 million.
These numbers are merely estimates based on what I could find in public records, but I think they are a fair representation of the cost considerations in pursuing a federal death penalty case.