Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Kimberly McCarthy and the death penalty

Texas is set to execute Kimberly McCarthy tonight in Texas for murdering her neighbor in 1997. 

While executions declined in the U.S. over the past decade, patterns persists. And of the 1321 executions in the last 35 years, McCarthy's case stands out. 
Photo: AP/Texas Department
of Criminal Justice

First, she's a woman. McCarthy will be only the 12th woman executed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. The death penalty is often invoked in murder cases with aggravating factors, such as premeditation or rape, which are both rare when the defendant is female. McCarthy was convicted of killing her elderly neighbor with a knife for drug money. Prosecutors said she severed her victim's finger to remove a diamond ring. DNA evidence tied McCarthy to two other violent murders.

Another factor: McCarthy's black. Contrary to many assumptions, most of those executed in capital cases - 56% - were white. Blacks make up about a third of all executions. 

But in other ways, McCarthy's case is typical. Not for who she is but for who her victim was.

Her victim was white, and in the U.S., you're far more likely to face the death penalty if you kill a white person. Over 75 percent of murder victims in capital cases were white. Since most murderers kill within their own race, this explains in part why more whites have been executed in the past 35 years.

But when killers cross racial lines, the numbers go a bit crazy. Since 1976, nineteen white defendants have been executed for killing black victims. In the same time, 257 black defendants were executed for murdering whites. Had Kimberly McCarthy killed a black woman in similar circumstances, she might have faced a better chance of life in prison. All but one of McCarthy's jurors where white. 

Finally, McCarthy's case exhibits the time and cost of a capital trial. Her first conviction in 1998 was tossed in 2001 by an appeals court who ruled police violated her rights by questioning her without her lawyer. She was re-tried in 2002 and convicted. The Texas court of appeals agreed with her second conviction in 2004, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case. Starting from her second conviction, McCarthy spent about 10 years on death row. 

That's relatively short. The average time a defendant spends on death row has grown in the past three decades, and was 14 years as of 2010. There are no estimates for the full taxpayer cost of McCarthy's 10-year appeal process, but a recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that advocates against capital punishment, found that capital cases cost the state of California over $4 billion since 1978. 

The DPIC breaks out about $1.9 billion of that as pre-trial and trial costs - presumably the costs of a murder investigation and trial - which would be incurred in any case. The rest of the costs are that of appeals and incarceration. 

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