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DIGGING DEEPER: Death penalty cases in Arizona cost $3 to $4 million per inmate, expert says

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 TUCSON (KVOA) - Just this week, it was announced death row inmate Frank Jarvis Atwood had exhausted his appeals. The Arizona attorney general is now seeking an execution warrant.

And also just a few days ago, it was announced that Christopher Clements accused of killing two young Tucson girls will not be facing the death penalty.

Two cases, 30 years apart. And there are similarities.

Frank Jarvis Atwood was convicted of killing 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in 1984. Christopher Clements accused of killing 6-year-old Isabel Celis in 2012 and 13-year-old Maribel Gonzalez two years later.

Clements was indicted on both murders in 2018 and has yet to go to trial.

After sitting on death row for more than 30 years, 64-year-old Atwood will be executed according to Arizona state law.

"Death penalty cases are extremely expensive," said retired prosecutor Rick Unklesbay.

Unklesbay who has 40 years experience just recently retired from the Pima County Attorney's Office.

He tried 20 death penalty cases and witnessed some executions.

On average, death penalty cases in Arizona cost from $3 to 4 million per inmate, according to Unklesbay.  He added that is why the smaller counties are not seeking death penalty cases.

"Their budget just won't allow for a case to be designated as a death penalty case because of the expense to the taxpayers of the county," he said.

Brick Storts has been practicing law for six decades and has handled at least 20 death penalty cases. One of them was John Cruz.

He was convicted of killing Tucson police officer Patrick Hardestyin 2003.
Cruz has been sitting on death row for 16 years.

Storts agrees death penalty cases are costly to the taxpayers, but they are a boom for defense attorneys.

"You have to pay court-appointed lawyers to do all of the work on the death penalty aspects of it after the trial is over with and you go through your appeals," he said.

He believes natural life is a better option so the person who committed the murder has to live with what he did every day.

"It seems to me that's more of a punishment than killing somebody," he said.

 For the families, Unklesbay added, "It's really hard on victims' families to go through the years and years of appeals that are inherent in these cases."

There are currently 115 inmates on death row.

The Arizona Department of Corrections said it costs $21,000 per year to house an inmate.  

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Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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