More than a decade ago, three men were prosecuted by an East Texas county for the racist 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. One drew a life sentence, two were sentenced to death.
Now comes Ron Paul of Texas, the former Republican U.S. House member and presidential candidate, hammering the fiscal impact of that case. Paul, whose senator-son, Rand, seeks the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, wrote in a June 2015 opinion column: "It is hard to find a more wasteful and inefficient government program than the death penalty." By way of example, he offered: "Jasper County in Texas raised property taxes by 7 percent in order to pay for one death penalty case!"
A reader asked us to check on whether such a case had that tax impact.
News stories mention tax hikes
We didn’t hear back from Paul about how he reached his conclusion. But searches starting from the Nexis news database led us to a couple news stories suggesting the county bore the costs of three Byrd-related prosecutions and legal appeals by raising its property tax rate.
In March 1999, correspondent John Burnett of National Public Radio reported the county, which had then finished one Byrd-related trial, "has had to raise property taxes 8 percent to pay for the three prosecutions, which are expected to surpass half a million dollars" in costs, Burnett said. His report included comments from Johnetta Nash, then the Jasper County auditor, saying the county had put off priorities including computer upgrades and a jail addition.
A 2002 Wall Street Journal news story presented a percentage tax increase like the one Paul declared. The story said the county’s costs of prosecuting Byrd’s murder had exceeded $1 million with more expenses expected, straining its $10 million annual budget and "forcing a 6.7% increase in property taxes over two years to pay for the trial." Generally, the Journal story said, death penalty cases are expensive because sentencing someone to death requires two proceedings; the first determines the accused person’s guilt, the second whether the convicted individual deserves the death penalty. "A death sentence," the story said, "is typically followed by years of appeals, and sometimes the entire case is retried."
Jasper County official provides costs document
Next, we queried officials in Jasper County, including Renee Weaver, the current county auditor, who emailed us an undated document she said she found in her files. The one-page document, titled "Capital Murder Costs - Jasper County," noted the county had six capital murder trials from 1998 to 2000 without more specifics. So we couldn’t tell exactly which trials were covered by the figures.
From 1998 through 2000, according to the document, the county spent $873,669 on capital murder costs across 20 itemized categories including salaries, court-appointed attorneys, investigation expenses, courtroom security and telephone charges. The document shows $118,863 in additional costs in 2000 and nearly $124,300 in costs accrued from 2001 through May 2003. Subtracting $298,916 in grants provided by outside agencies to help cover costs leaves the declared unreimbursed county spending over five years at more than $817,000.
Uncertain impact on tax rate?
Unfortunately for our purposes, the document presented no information on whether changes in the county’s tax rate were influenced by the Byrd-related trial costs. Hoping for illumination on that front, we reached out to current and former county officials.
Joe Folk, who was the county’s top elected official as Jasper County judge from 1995 through 2006, said he didn’t recall any tax hike driven by the county’s prosecutorial and appellate costs, though it’s possible. "It cost us a pretty good sum," Folk said. "We probably had to raise the rates some. But it wasn’t a great amount."
Folk guided us to Nash, the former official who spoke to NPR. She told us she wasn’t sure about any specific hike due to the trials and urged us to consult David Luther, who has long been the chief appraiser of the Jasper County Appraisal District.
To our inquiry, Luther provided a chart showing the county’s tax rate changes in those years and, separately, the degree to which each adopted rate exceeded the rate needed to bring in the revenue the county raised from taxes the year before.
Taxes did go up. A few months after Byrd’s death, according to the chart, the county increased its general tax rate nearly 12 percent from the year before--from 31.72 cents per $100 valuation to 35.405 cents per $100 valuation. Significantly, Luther elaborated, that rate was about 7.25 percent higher than the rate of 33.012 cents per $100 valuation that would have generated the revenue the county gathered the year before--with the county’s budgeted costs for the Byrd matter, he said, accounting for more than 80 percent of this difference.
Luther said he knows how one of the Byrd cases played into the tax rate that first year thanks to his January 1999 letter to a Jasper County prosecutor about how much the judge overseeing that Byrd-related trial was going to have to pay in additional county property taxes on his home due to the county’s trial expenses. At issue, he recalled, was a motion to have the judge recused from the case because of potential bias caused by the tax increase on his homestead.
Luther’s letter said the county budgeted about $292,000 for the costs of the trial during 1999 which, he wrote, translates to about two cents per $100 valuation of the tax rate. For an average local homeowner, county property taxes for the year attributable to those budgeted costs, Luther wrote, broke out to $5.10.
"So," Luther told us by email, "you could say that taxes were increased due to the trial costs by 6.05%." He acknowledged by phone that this calculation reflected just the first part of the county’s spending on prosecutions and appeals, which extended over several years.
Paul said Jasper County "raised property taxes by 7 percent in order to pay for one death penalty case."
The chief appraiser’s research and letter demonstrates there was nearly a 7 percent first-year increase in taxes attributed to the costs of a death penalty trial.
We rate Paul’s claim True.
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
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