Hockley County considering high cost of death penalty cases

Four capital murder cases in Hockley county; D.A. Angela Overman says she would seek the death penalty in latest one
Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 7:45 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Hockley County currently has four capital murder cases on the docket, a high number for a rural area. That includes last month’s indictment of the accused Levelland shooter charged with killing a SWAT commander.

The District Attorney has already promised to pursue the death penalty in that case.

It’s unclear what punishment will be sought for the other three, but the death penalty is still on the table.

But death penalty trials can be so costly, more than half the counties in Texas have not sent one person to death row, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP).

“These cases are just much more time consuming and resource-intensive in the criminal legal system,“ Kristin Houle Cuellar, the executive director, said. “Meter really starts running from the moment that a district attorney decides to seek the death penalty in a capital case.”

Cuellar says capital punishment can cost two to three times more than alternative punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility for parole.

It comes down to a number of factors, like a lengthy jury selection process, automatic appeals after convictions, required testing of all biological evidence (like DNA) and expert testimony, to name a few.

Sometimes, a court orders a change of venue, seeking an unbiased jury. That could end up costing even more, and all on the local jurisdiction’s dime.

In 2009, Gray County in the panhandle, roughly the same size as Hockley County, spent almost $1 million in its capital case against Levi King, which was moved to Lubbock County.

“In that case, the jury didn’t even impose a death penalty. So all of that money was spent on an outcome that they could have secured anyway, which is that Levi King would have spent the rest of his life in prison,” Cuellar said.

READ MORE: Levi King’s life spared, will spend the rest of his behind

Cuellar says in 2019, half of the cases in Texas where death row was an option, the jury instead chose to sentence the defendant to life without parole.

While there are some resources, like the state Attorney General’s office, the majority of the costs are on the county taxpayer.

In the King case, TCADP reports the cost of trial was a factor in the county withholding employee raises and increasing tax rates.

“It is the county budget that is impacted directly by the use of the death penalty. We’ve seen other examples in other counties, particularly our smaller, rural counties where they’ve had to make very difficult budgeting decisions. Do we purchase more ambulances or do we seek the death penalty? Those are some real choices that have been made at the local level.”

KCBD has reached out to the Hockley County judge, but have not heard back as of Thursday night.

The District Attorney had no comment.

READ MORE: Grand jury indicts Levelland couple in death of toddler

READ MORE: Levelland police investigating Saturday night homicide; suspect in custody

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