Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Willis trial worth the cost

Howard Hawk Willis has been sentenced to death for the murders of Adam and Samantha Chrismer. The verdict for the 2002 killings was rendered by a jury from Knox County in a trial conducted by retired Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood earlier this month.
The trial is the most notorious proceeding conducted in the newly dedicated George P. Jaynes Washington County Courthouse.
Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn estimates the cost of the trial to Washington County taxpayers was just over $66,000.
Additional incarceration costs and attorney fees escalate the bill to more then $300,000. However, now that the case will be in the appellate stage and Willis has been moved to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, future costs will be billed directly to the State of Tennessee.
A report released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury has recommended changes to the state’s costly death penalty and called into question its effectiveness in preventing crime.
The Office of Research noted that it lacked sufficient data to accurately account for the total cost of capital trials, stating that because cost and time records were not maintained, the Office of Research was unable to determine the total, comprehensive cost of the death penalty in Tennessee.
Although noting that, “no reliable data exists concerning the cost of prosecution or defense of first-degree murder cases in Tennessee,” the report concluded that capital murder trials are longer and more expensive at every step compared to other murder trials. In fact, the available data indicated that in capital trials, taxpayers pay half again as much as murder cases in which prosecutors seek prison terms rather than the death penalty.
The data supports evidence that Tennessee District Attorneys General are not consistent in their pursuit of the death penalty.
Surveys and interviews of district attorneys indicate that some prosecutors “use the death penalty as a ‘bargaining chip’ to secure plea bargains for lesser sentences.” Previous research provides no clear indication whether the death penalty acts as a method of crime prevention.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed 29 percent of capital cases on direct appeal in a study of death penalty cases dating from 2004.
Although any traumatic trial may cause stress and pain for jurors, the victims’ family, and the defendant’s family, the pressure may be at its peak during death penalty trials.
Some advocates who want to eliminate the death penalty claim that the exorbitant costs of capital punishment are actually making America less safe because badly needed financial and legal resources are being diverted from effective crime fighting strategies.
Before the Los Angeles riots, for example, California had little money for innovations like community policing, but was managing to spend an extra $90 million per year on capital punishment.
Texas, with over 300 people on death row, is spending an estimated $2.3 million per case, but its murder rate remains one of the highest in the country.
The case for the death penalty, however, is that in a number of instances involving murder the punishment should fit the crime. Certainly, the victims and their families have the right to justice, including the imposition of a death penalty.
First District Attorney General Tony Clark said after the Willis trial: “Our system is set up to protect defendants from being wrongfully convicted. Judge Blackwell was more than fair considering (Willis) was his own attorney.”
Realizing there are costs necessary to preserve a defendant’s rights does not eliminate the right of government to impose the death penalty.
The Willis case, after all the state and federal appeals are exhausted, may end up as a leading decision in criminal justice in the United States.
It may well be that because over an eight-year span Willis challenged and delayed the criminal justice system, the requirement he be his own attorney was justified under both the Tennessee and United States Constitutions.
Such a decision would have lasting importance on those future cases where defendants choose to follow the kind of tactics Willis employed in Washington County.
Taxpayers should realize that the Willis case is far from completed.
However, the first and most important stage of the proceedings – a trial by jury – is now finished.
The verdict despite the costs appears to be a just decision.
And despite the cost to taxpayers, we must remember it is the victims and their families who in this case that will be forever paying the ultimate price.