In our area, with the prevalence of gang activity, it is not hard to imagine a crime involving multiple defendants with different levels of responsibility. In a murder case, the court might be faced with 5 or 6 defendants who were involved in various ways. Without going into many scenarios, one defendant would likely act as the instigator, while another may serve as a lookout. All are likely to be charged with murder. Which ones, if not all, are then chosen to face the death penalty? Should all 5 or 6 face the death penality? Should the instigator? Should the lookout?
The article highlights a case such as this in Arizona involving multiple defendants accused of murder. Three of the four defendants, as a result of plea bargaining, entered guilty pleas receiving sentences of various terms of imprisonment. Those three defendants included the instigator, and two others who helped with the beating. The fourth defendant, who "by all accounts was not directly involved in the killing," received the death penalty.
It is not uncommon for the defendant with the least amount of culpability to receive the harshest sentence. The most reasonable explanation for this would be the effects of plea bargaining. According to Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., "In an ideal world, the prosecution would have ironclad proof against all the co-defendants to be able to pick the worst for the death penalty, but we have an inequitable system, a bargaining system. If you give the prosecution some help, you'll get something out of it."
Another factor leading to inconsistency in death penalty enforcement is the cost. A capital case can cost at least $1 million to to try, from start to finish. A lot of times, this does not include the cost of the post-conviction appeals. Capital cases are extremely expensive, and oftentimes, that is a deterrent to its enforcement.
Lastly, the article points out that the laws by which prosecutors refer to when deciding whether to seek the death penalty in a certain case are extremely broad. For instance, Tennessee has statutory authority listing 15 aggravating factors for seeking the death penalty. If the jury finds, beyond a reasonable doubt that one of these aggravating factors occurred, the death penalty is appropriate. Some of the factors include;
- If the victim was a government worker;
- If the defendant has been previously convicted of a violent felony;
- If the victim was under the age of 12 and the defendant was over the age of 18;
- Plus many more.
The article sought to shine some light on the broad statutory authority used to enforce the death penalty in 32 states, the inconsistencies of the death penalty in multiple-defendant cases, and the budget concerns that have prosecutors hesitating to enforce capital punishment. Mission accomplished!