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Marion County Could Spend $1 Million On Purge Killings Case

Cruz

The Marion County Public Defender’s office says the county could spend more than $1 million on the murder cases against Johnathan Cruz.

The Indianapolis man is accused of shooting and killing three men in May.

The prosecutor is pursuing the death penalty in the case, but the public defender's office says doing so is financially irresponsible.

How Marion County's Prosecutor Decides Whether To Pursue The Death Penalty

Over a period of three days in May, police say 19-year-old Cruz shot and killed three men: Billy Boyd, Jay Higginbotham and Jose Alberto Ruiz.

Court documents say Cruz told a friend he was inspired by a 2013 horror movie called “The Purge,” where all crimes are legal for one day a year. Cruz is now facing the death penalty for the murders.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry formed a review committee when he took office that considers whether the death penalty should be pursued in qualifying cases. In order to qualify, the case must meet one of 17 aggravating circumstances outlined in state law.

Curry says having a committee weigh in on the decision helps take the emotions out of the process.

"When a 7-year-old girl is murdered, when a baby has been killed by the boyfriend of the mother, I assure you that we are angry and furious every single time when we're confronted with circumstances."

"When a 7-year-old girl is murdered, when a baby has been killed by the boyfriend of the mother, I assure you that we are angry and furious every single time when we’re confronted with circumstances," Curry says. "But that’s why you need to step back from that and make it a thoughtful process."

The panel considers several factors, including the evidence in the case, the defendant’s criminal history and whether there are any substance abuse issues. The prosecutor’s office also talks to the families of victims.

"We will obviously try to gauge the wishes of the family to understand that, but ultimately their wishes can’t control the decision," Curry says.

One factor that does not play a large role in deciding how to move forward is the cost of death penalty cases.

According to a 2015 Legislative Services Agency report, death penalty cases cost, on average, nearly ten times as much as pursuing a sentence of life without parole.

"It is not one of the primary considerations in making a decision, but certainly is a secondary consideration," Curry says. "I know then what it’s going to end up costing the county in terms of additional costs for the public defender’s office, court staff, court security. All those sorts of things."

Curry has filed four death penalty requests in his more than five years in office. He says one of the reasons he established a review panel for the cases is because his predecessor filed 29 death penalty requests over a period of 16 years.

Only one of those cases resulted in the defendant going to death row.

 The Cost Of Pursuing The Death Penalty

According to figures compiled by the Marion County Public Defender’s Office, the county has spent more than $2 million on six death penalty cases over the past decade.

Of those cases, four resulted in life without parole sentences. The other two are still awaiting trial, which means the costs will only increase.

The county used to set aside a designated amount in its budget every year to handle death penalty cases, but the costs became too unpredictable.

"I can’t predict year in year out which case is going to go death," says Marion County Chief Public Defender Robert Hill. "So it creates quite a hardship on my budget. A few years ago at my suggestion the county went to a pay-as-you-go system for funding death penalty cases."

"If you think about all the money we spent, it just doesn't make sense to me."

Hill says his office pays for death penalty cases up front and then asks the county council for reimbursement twice a year.

"They have to borrow from funds that they might want to otherwise use for funding say police cars or parks or something like this," Hill says. "So this is a really big problem."

The state will also pitch in up to 50 percent of the costs for a death penalty case, but Hill says it’s still a huge financial burden for the county — one he doesn’t think is worth the payoff.

"If you think about all the money we spent, it just doesn’t make sense to me," Hill says. "It’s just simply not worth it — not worth the distortion we go through — the budgetary distortion we have to go through to get the job done."

So far the public defender’s office has only spent $320 on the Cruz case, but Hill says his office is just getting started. He thinks the case could reach the million dollar mark.

"If it’s a marathon run, we haven’t even gotten out of the starting blocks yet," Hill says.

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