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DEATH PENALTY INVESTIGATION: Despite unknown cost of death penalty, new chamber sought

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Updated: 3/05/2013 9:48 am
LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3) -- Gov. Brian Sandoval wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new execution chamber room without knowing the complete cost of capital punishment.

From lawyers to housing to courts, the road from arrest to execution remains a costly one, but exactly how much is unknown.

Now, there is a new cost linked to the death penalty, and taxpayers will get that bill, too.

Prosecutors across Nevada are pushing forward on new death penalty cases, adding to the dozens of inmates waiting on death row, some for more than three decades.

And the costs keep piling up, even though there is no chance of an execution in Nevada any time soon because the chamber was not up to code and closed.

Nathan Burkett is Nevada's first capital case of 2013 and just one of 70 pending in Clark County, which has the most pending death cases in the country. But even if prosecutors get a conviction, the state cannot execute him because the chamber is closed.

Sandoval wants to pursue a new death chamber, which would cost nearly $700,000.

Last session, Sen. Tick Segerblom proposed an audit that would detail the costs of a capital case and housing a death row inmate. It passed both chambers, but the governor vetoed it at the last minute concerned that it wouldn't be reliable and fair.

“The key is no one is being killed right now,” Segerblom said. “The death penalty is not being enforced. So we're spending huge amounts, tens of millions of dollars in upfront costs, to convict people of the death penalty. And then they just sit on death row forever which, again, seems kind of illogical to me.”

Clark County has the highest amount of pending death cases of any jurisdiction in the country. In both 2009 and 2010, the district attorney’s office filed 23 capital cases, and 20 were filed in 2011.

In 2012, when Steve Woflson took office, only five were filed.

“Our homicide rate is down,” Wolfson said. “But I think that in the 11 months that I’ve been the DA, my office is taking kind of a different perspective of the filing.”

Wolfson points out capital punishment is still the law in Nevada -- he meets with 10 attorneys twice a month to review potential death penalty cases -- but says it should be reserved for the worst of the worst.

Wolfson agrees capital cases cost his office more, but the financial burden weighs most heavily on the defense. That position is echoed by public defender Philip Kohn.
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