Blaine County is considering withdrawing from a state program in an attempt to disincentivize local prosecutors from seeking the death penalty and to take a stand against the practice over objections from the local prosecutor.
The Capital Crimes Defense Fund pays for public defenders of people who’ve already been convicted and are appealing his or her sentence – a long and expensive process for death penalty cases. Before it was established in 1998, those costs fell to the counties.
“It could be said that if the county were to withdraw from the Capital Crimes Defense Fund it could hamstring a prosecutor’s decision in pursuing the death penalty, or the prosecutor would have to certainly be aware that it would be an enormous financial burden on the county,” says Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, who pushed to leave the program.
Schoen notes says it’s an opportunity for the community to say it doesn’t support capital punishment.
“Mistakes can be made in the judicial system. The death penalty is irreversible. In addition, the costs of the death penalty are enormous.”
In a letter to commissioners Wednesday, Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas alleges they were "unlawfully attempting to usurp my prosecutorial discretion," and that withdrawing from the program won't affect his charging decisions.
Thomas wrote he has never sought capital punishment during his 22 years as a prosecuting attorney in the county, but that "there may be circumstances where the heinous nature of a crime warrants the maximum penalty that can be imposed by law."
He called the plan a "politically calculated power play" and that "Such action will also have a profoundly negative fiscal impact on Blaine County, will lead to disarray in our public defender system, and ultimately result in substantial harm to criminal defendants."
Ada County nearly left the program two months ago, but quickly resumed its membership once officials there found out they’d have to pay for appeal costs related to all felonies – not just capital cases – with a bill potentially running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Shoen is researching how much the move might cost Blaine County and will make a decision on whether to leave the program by next week.
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