Clark County prosecutor supports limits on death-penalty payments

CLARK COUNTY — Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Stewart is pushing for limits on the reimbursements allowed to defendants in death penalty cases.

Stewart was a featured speaker last month at a Death Penalty Summit sponsored by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller in South Bend. He argued that defendants are allowed to spend an exorbitant amount of money for attorney fees, experts and other expenses.

Stewart said there are no guidelines for judges to follow when deciding what expenses are reasonable and necessary.

“[Judges] are rightfully concerned about whether a denial of such expenses will result in a reversal, and the end result is a rubber-stamp process for anything requested,” Stewart said. “More importantly, the prosecution is not given any input in the process. That has to change.

“Otherwise, the costs will force us out of the capital punishment business.”

The data shows the number of death penalty requests by prosecutors have sharply decreased in recent years.

From 1990 through 2000, there were 4,617 murders and non-negligent homicides throughout Indiana. Prosecutors requested the death penalty in 153 of those homicides, and 25 cases resulted in the death sentences, according to figures provided by the Indiana Public Defender Council.

In the last four years, only seven death penalty cases have been filed in Indiana. In the four years prior, 21 cases were filed.

“So it is time that we in the criminal justice system have a candid conversation about the economic impact of capital punishment in Indiana,” Zoeller said in a news release. “I don’t claim to know the answers, but as state government’s lawyer sworn to uphold the laws of Indiana, I hope we can trigger a frank discussion of these questions.”

Counties are reimbursed by the state for half the cost, but capital cases are significantly more expenses than any other cases.

Bryan Corbin, public information officer for the Attorney General’s Office, said the summit was not intended to propose a policy change but to generate discussion before the next General Assembly session and during the ongoing comprehensive review of Indiana’s criminal code.

Corbin pointed to the 1997 death penalty trial of John Stephenson in Warrick County. Defense costs alone were about $558,000. Corbin said that may be enough to dissuade small counties from seeking the death penalty.

“That could be really an enormous cost for any county government that is really cash-strapped for revenue,” Corbin said.

Paula Sites, assistant executive director for the Indiana Public Defender Council, believes it would be more financially prudent to abolish the death penalty “rather than trying to shave off a thousand dollars here or there by setting limits on expenditures.”

“These cases cost close to half a million dollars, and there’s really no evidence filing these cases and spending the money gives us anything more in terms of public safety,” she said.

Sites said a recent report showed that prosecution costs in death penalty cases increase even more than defense costs. She also said that, unlike the federal system, state courts do not require judges to approve expenditures for the prosecution.

“It’s not as if judges are just handing defense council that money,” Sites said. “Defendants are required to go into court and show the judge why a particular expert is reasonably necessary.”

Stewart said there is no reasonable and acceptable alternative to capital punishment. Even life without parole, he said, does not ensure a person will not kill another inmate or prison guard or even escape from prison.

Stewart said he began researching the death penalty 20 years ago and authors a yearly compendium for prosecutors on the death penalty in Indiana.

“It grew from the realization that I didn’t know as much as I needed to,” he said.

Stewart worked on several capital punishment cases early in his career. The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office has filed five death penalty cases since capital punishment was reinstated in Indiana in 1977, and only one of those cases resulted in a defendant being sentenced to death and that sentence was overturned.

The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office website,, is one of the most comprehensive resources for information on the death penalty in Indiana. It includes information about every person who has been executed or is on death row, public opinion polls, applicable law, a history of capital punishment, methods of execution and statistics.

“95 percent of sites out there are anti-death penalty,” Stewart said.

Stewart decided it was important for people to know what “the monsters who have committed these acts” actually did, so he includes a description of each person’s crime as well as all court decisions in each case