BOONE COUNTY, Ind. – Zachariah Wright is charged with killing a 73-year-old man and trying to rape and set fire to his wife.
His trial was originally set for December, but now the Boone County Prosecutor, Todd Meyer, has decided to pursue the death penalty.
“Death penalty cases in Indiana right now are quite rare,” said Jack Crawford, a defense attorney and former Lake County prosecutor who’s tried 17 death penalty cases.
The reason, in part, he says, is that the process could take years or even decades.
“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’m sure he’s had to make,” said Crawford.
A tough choice Crawford says because of a long list of factors including Wright’s age. Wright was 19, just one year older than the constitutional minimum, when police say he stabbed Max Foster to death.
“Even though technically they can vote, they can sign a contract, they can’t drink alcohol, but at the age of 19 they’re an adult under the law,” said Crawford. “But do they have the mental background and resources to make important decisions?”
A death penalty case is expensive, anywhere from $300,000 to $2 million dollars.
Lawyers I spoke to say that’s why they believe there’s been a drop in cases pursued, with only six pending right now in the entire state. They say that’s because the state mandates a lot of man hours on both sides.
“In my experience, if you’re appointed as a death penalty attorney, they expect thousands of hours in billing from the attorneys that are doing that work,” said John Tompkins, a defense attorney who’s been involved in death penalty trials. In other words, they expect a lot of work to be done and they don’t bat an eye.”
For people facing the death penalty who can’t afford representation, the state requires at least two different attorneys, an investigator and a mitigation specialist be appointed.
“Literally a person’s life is on the line,” said Tompkins. “Not the rest of his life in prison, but his life is on the line.”
And he says the prosecution, of course, also has a life on the line—the one that was taken, that they’re trying to obtain justice for.
With the stakes so high, Wright’s attorney Allen Reid already has boxes and boxes of information to sort through.
“It’s awfully early in the case,” said Reid. “The prosecutor indicated to me three weeks ago, that he has about 50 DVDs worth of evidence that he needs to get to me that thus far I have not seen.”
And Tompkins says the jailhouse interview CBS4 conducted with Wright could make the defense’s job tough too.
“It is an inherently horrible situation to be in,” said Tompkins. “Hardly anyone is operating the way he normally would, cognitively, when they’re talking, and everyone wants out of jail.”
And all of these challenges are amplified for the victims’ family members, who may find seeking the death penalty leads them to relive their nightmare for decades.
“The cost to the family is,” Crawford starts before pausing. “This will take a long time. It won’t come to trial for at least a year and a half in Boone County and then there will be appeals and appeals and appeals.”
Tompkins noted that just because the state is seeking the death penalty doesn’t mean the case will actually make it to a jury trial.
He says that often prosecutors will go for the death penalty and defendants will take a plea bargain for life without parole in a bid to save their lives.