Death penalty will not be pursued in Lookout Valley triple murde - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Death penalty will not be pursued in Lookout Valley triple murder case

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -  The death penalty is off the table for two of the three suspects accused in the high profile triple murder case in Lookout Valley. Although victims' families can voice their opinions on wanting to pursue the death penalty, that decision is ultimately up to the prosecutor.

Lawyers say death penalty cases are a very expensive and time consuming process -- and taxpayers foot the majority of the bills. The costs of pursuing a death penalty case falls on state and local governments.

"I think the public thinks the conviction at a jury trial, when a jury gives a conviction of death, that that is somehow the end of the case -- when in fact, that's the beginning of the case. It's the first step in the post-conviction process," said Chattanooga defense attorney Lee Davis.

Davis has experience defending and prosecuting death penalty cases.

"You've got a very difficult dichotomy, and we see it here in the South. We've got anti-crime and pro-death penalty, but you also have anti-tax," Davis said.

Some studies show death penalty trials cost $1 million dollars more than a life without parole case.

Right now three inmates from Hamilton County are on Tennessee death row. Two of them (Leroy Hall and Harold Nichols) have been there since the early 1990's. Marlon Kiser, who was convicted of shooting Deputy Donald Bond in 2001, was recently back in Hamilton County court. He's been appealing his conviction for 13 years.

Taxpayers paid more than $409,000 just to house Kiser on death row -- almost double the cost of a non-death row inmate. That figure doesn't include any of his court costs.

"You end up having a defendant, if he gets the death penalty, who almost becomes a quasi-celebrity. He's on death row, he has all these appeals, all of this support," said Davis.

Meantime, the victim's family relives the crime with each court date for longer than a dozen years.

The state will not pursue the death penalty for Derek Morse and Skyler Allen, two of three suspects in the Lookout Valley triple murder this spring. Morse and Allen are facing life without parole.

"Under Tennessee law, there are certain aggravating circumstances that have to be proven before a jury could sentence you to life in prison without possibility of parole," Judge Barry Steelman told the defendants during their arraignment on Tuesday.

Davis believes life without parole statute can be better when it comes to a victim-oriented prosecution.

"In life without parole, the person is convicted, they're sent off, they become sort of a faceless person," he said.

Currently 74 inmates are sitting on death row. Since 1960 there have been just six executions.

In 1972 the US Supreme Court decided a case (Furman v. Georgia) that changed the way death penalty was handled in the country, allowing states to adopt their own statutes.

Before 1972, the average length of time an inmate spent on death row before execution was two to three years. Due to failures in that system, new constitutional safeguards were built in for defendants sentenced to death. That new post-conviction system created an unintended consequence of a system that now takes decades, Davis said.

"They're the worst kind of cases to deal with in our system. When (death penalty) is used, it should just be used for the worst of the worse cases," he said.

Per TCA 39-13-204 (i), there are 17 aggravating circumstances that can lead to an enhanced sentence. "No death penalty or sentence of imprisonment for life without possibility of parole shall be imposed except upon a unanimous finding that the state has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of one or more of the statutory aggravating circumnstances," the statute reads.

With the current death penalty post-conviction statute in place, it takes an average of 16 years to go from a conviction to an execution, but often times it takes much longer than that.

TDOC inmate Donald Strouth has been on death row since 1978. The average cost of housing a death row inmate is $103.74 per day, which is $36 more expensive than a non-death row inmate.

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