CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - With the death penalty on the table, the federal murder trial for accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof could be the most expensive trial ever held in Charleston County.
The average cost of a federal death penalty trial is more than $600,000 according to the Office of Defender Services. That is eight times more expensive than a federal murder case when death is not considered. Every trial is different and so are the costs associated with them, but a few factors could send the price tag soaring. Roof is facing 33 charges including murder and civil rights violations for the shooting at Emanuel AME church June 17, 2015.
High profile death penalty cases have been known to skyrocket in price, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
For example, in July 2014, a Colorado jury found James Holmes guilty on 24 counts of first-degree murder for the Aurora theater massacre. According to the Denver Post, it cost at least $3 million to prosecute the capital case against Holmes. This includes $1.2 million for victims advocacy services and travel for family, $775,000 for expert witnesses and other costs associated with the District Attorney's office. Another $612,000 was spent on two state-appointed psychiatric evaluations. The total doesn't include unreleased costs related to Holmes's defense. Holmes faced the death penalty but was sentenced to life in prison.
Ten years earlier, the capital murder trials against Beltway Snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo both cost more than a million dollars according to the Associated Press. Muhammad and Malvo were tried separately in 2004 and both trials were relocated from Northern Virginia. Muhammad's trial cost $1.4 million, including $886,000 for his defense. Malvo's trial cost the state of Virginia $1.3 million with more than $1 million to pay for his defense. The defense paid $59,000 for one expert witness alone according to the Associated Press. Both Muhammad and Malvo were convicted, but only Muhammed received a death sentence. He was executed in 2009.
"If you're going to be exacting the ultimate punishment, you need to make sure you got it right," Summerville attorney Robert Robbins said.
Robbins has practiced law in the Lowcountry for almost 30 years and worked on both sides of murder cases. He helped prosecute several capital cases while working in the Solicitor's office in Summerville from 1997 to 2004.
"I think it is the amount of work involved in these cases that drives the cost up," Robbins said.
That work includes the investigation of the crime scene and investigation into the defendant. This can include hundreds of hours of preparation from the prosecution and the defense.
We filed nearly a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests to local, state and federal agencies but were denied the costs associated with the trial. Each agency told us the records were either unavailable at this point in the process or releasing them could interfere with the judicial proceedings.
Some associated costs are already available due to fixed payments by the court system. The cost of the jury in federal court could be at least four times higher than a state murder trial. Anyone summoned for federal jury duty is paid $40 per day plus expenses, compared to a state juror who is paid $10 plus expenses.
The cost of picking a jury in the Dylann Roof federal trial has already exceeded $30,000 during the initial summons. Almost 800 jurors were called in during the last week of September. The voir dire process of questioning individual jurors could a few weeks, costing an additional $15,000 to finally seat a jury.
Costs will continue to rise each day of the trial, and one expensive part for the prosecution or defense could be the testimony of an expert witness.
"If their rate is $300 an hour and if they're not local, then you probably have to fly them in, house them in a hotel and then they're here for whatever period of time at that rate," Robbins said. "Yeah, it could be several thousand dollars just to secure their testimony."
The cost of security around the trial must also be considered. The Boston Police Department reported it spent almost $750,000 in overtime during the five-month trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
In our FOIA requests, we reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Marshals, Charleston County Sheriff's Office and the Charleston Police Department, but were told costs were not available at this time.
"We don't talk about specific numbers assigned because that's not appropriate for us in terms of our security planning," Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
A technology cost associated with the trial was paid for by a federal grant. Charleston County received $61,000 to provide live streaming of the trial to overflow courtrooms provided to family and media.
The total cost of the trial may not be known until all legal proceedings are done, but it is expected to carry a price tag higher than any other trial in Charleston County.