Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, the cost of a death penalty trial has risen steadily, says The Marshall Project. More legal protections for defendants have translated into more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Once, psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview enough to establish a defendant’s mental state. Now it is routine to compile a mental health history. Lab tests are more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams hire mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant's life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency.
Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which can last years. The defendant lives on death row, which may cost more due to heightened security. In states like Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where counties pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for trial expenses. Prosecutors suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly true in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.