Last month, Ward Weaver agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison, bringing his high-profile murder case to a sudden end.

While state officials haven't finished tallying the public expense of defending the man who admitted to killing two Oregon City girls, it could easily be in the million-dollar range. (Weaver was represented by private attorneys who get reimbursed by the state.)

Assuming that public prosecutors spent comparable time working to convict Weaver, that means taxpayers spent a whole lot of money on a case that didn't end up with a brutal murderer being sentenced to death.

Obviously, the system failed, right?

No, say local prosecutors. If fact, they say, Weaver's case shows that the death penalty works--particularly when it's not used.

Twenty years ago, Oregonians voted (by a 3-to-1 margin) to reinstate the death penalty, which had been declared unconstitutional in 1981. Since then, only two men have been put to death, and only because they asked to be killed. There are currently 28 prisoners, five from Multnomah County (below), waiting on Oregon's Death Row. None of them have exhausted their appeals, even though many were sentenced more than a decade ago.

Take the case of Dayton Rogers, who in 1987 was sentenced to death for the murder of six women. Seventeen years later, Rogers is still very much alive. In fact, according to one analyst, Rogers can't be executed, under Oregon's lengthy, legally mandated appeals process, until sometime around 2022, when he will be 69 years old.

So, not only are taxpayers spending millions on guys like Weaver, who escape the death penalty; we're also spending millions on guys like Rogers, who are sentenced to death but never executed.

Yet Oregon's prosecutors are making a surprising--and surprisingly logical--argument: The death penalty may actually be saving Oregonians money, by inducing defendants charged with aggravated murder to plead guilty.

"When you eliminate the death penalty, you change the goal posts," says Norm Frink, Multnomah County's chief deputy district attorney. "Even though the possibility of actually being executed is remote, it's different when it's you. Nothing so concentrates the criminal mind as facing the possibility of a death sentence."

Frink's position is shared by Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United. Speaking for himself, not his group, Doell says that without the death penalty on the books, "Who would be crazy enough to plead guilty to 'true life in prison'"?

Tillamook County District Attorney William Porter says the threat of the lethal needle motivated Edward Morris to agree to a sentence of life without parole for the execution-style murder of his pregnant wife and three young children in the Tillamook State Forest in 2002.

The government doesn't tally the numbers, but William R. Long, author of A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon, estimates that Oregonians spent at least $9 million on death-penalty litigation in 1998 alone. That monetary total, said Long, may be up to 10 times what the state would have spent if these defendants had been sentenced to life without parole.

But, as Frink points out, Long didn't factor in any savings created when defendants plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.

Based on information provided to WW by the system's three main players (the defense, the prosecution and the courts) it appears that--to the extent the death penalty induces defendants to skip trial and accept plea bargains--it does save the state money.

According to data from the Salem-based Office of Public Defense Services, nine of the 10 most expensive aggravated-murder cases closed, statewide, since 1993 were trials. But the 10 least expensive cases were all pleas. The cost savings of getting pleas versus going to trial were overwhelming.

This is true even in cases such as Weaver's, where the high cost of getting him to the negotiating table (made higher because his first team of lawyers quit) would have been dwarfed by the cost of trying him and getting him through the appeals process to execution.

It was the threat of the death penalty, says Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, that caused Weaver to agree to life without parole.

"Mr. Weaver," says Foote, "acts completely out of his own self-interest."

Multnomah County's Death Row Five

Source: Oregon Supreme Court Death Sentence Report, July 9, 2004


MARCO MONTEZ Years on Death Row: 16Status: Waiting for ruling on his post-conviction relief trial (step 3 in Oregon's 10-step appeals process).

ERNEST LOTCHES Years on Death Row: 11Status: Waiting for trial date on his petition for post-conviction relief.

MICHAEL MCNEELYYears on Death Row: 9Status: Waiting for trial date on his petition for post-conviction relief.

MATTHEW THOMPSONYears on Death Row: 8Status: Waiting for trial date on his petition for post-conviction relief.

ERIC RUNNINGYears on Death Row: 4Status: The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence this spring.