Dayton Leroy Rogers is one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers. In the mid-80s, he took at least seven women to a remote area of Oregon, tortured them for his own sexual pleasure and killed them. In some cases, he even cut off their feet.
Yet nearly 30 years later, Rogers is once again sitting in an Oregon courtroom. Since 1989, when he was first sentenced, Rogers’ death penalty has been rejected three times by the Oregon Supreme Court. On Monday, a jury sent him to death row for the fourth time.
That's 28 years of litigation, with more to come. It’s one of the most extreme recent examples of the long, expensive, and emotionally draining unintended consequences of the death penalty.
"The prosecutors just can't give up on this one. [Rogers is] the worst of them all," William Long, an attorney who has studied about the death penalty in Oregon and who testified as an expert witness at trial, told Fusion. (The prosecution did not return calls requesting comment.)
Because capital defendants are granted automatic appeals to their sentences, Long estimated the appeals process could take upwards of another 30 years to complete—which would put Rogers into his 90s, if he were to even live that long.
The last time the Oregon Supreme Court vacated his death penalty sentence was in 2012. In that case, the judge cited the court's use of anonymous jury procedures as grounds for a retrial. It also ruled against the admittance of testimony about Rogers' past homosexual experiences as evidence that he was a "continuing threat" to society.
It’s also been 28 years of denied closure for the victims' families. Of having to repeatedly stand before the court and share the trauma of still dealing with the case. "I hate having to share the air in the courtroom with him. I hate looking at him," Wayne De Vore, the father of one of the victims, told jurors two weeks ago.
"There is no closure," he said.
In addition to the heartbreak, the financial toll of the death penalty can be astounding. During a hearing last week, defense attorney Lynne Morgan estimated that the newest round in the courts could run the defense bill up to $3 million, all of which would be paid by taxpayers. If the prosecution would simply push ahead for a normal life sentence, she said, it could constitute "a real punishment [that] will bring this matter to an end, once and for all."
Prosecutor Scott Healy argued in court that "it's [Rogers'] nature" to be violent, and that if he were released from death row and placed into general population, he could pose a major threat to fellow inmates.
"You are negotiating with a serial killer," he told jurors. "You know what he's done and you know what he's capable of."
But numbers-oriented members of the community might not be convinced that the death penalty is worth pursuing in court, even if they support it in principle, expert witness Long suggested.
In a seminal report released in 2009, the Death Policy Information Center, a leading anti-death penalty nonprofit, detailed the wasted money that states put up while trying to put carry out executions. In some states, hundreds of millions of dollars were put down during that period, and still no people got executed.
California is spending an estimated $137 million per year on the death penalty and has not had an execution in three and a half years. Florida is spending approximately $51 million per year on the death penalty, amounting to a cost of $24 million for each execution it carries out. A recent study in Maryland found that the bill for the death penalty over a twenty-year period that produced five executions will be $186 million. Other states like New York and New Jersey spent well over $100 million on a system that produced no executions. Both recently abandoned the practice.
In Oregon, where the Rogers trial is taking place, the cost of putting someone up for the death penalty is up to five times the amount that it would cost to give that person a life without parole sentence, according to a study cited by the same organization.
The number is steady going up, too. In a 2010 report prepared for the Judicial Conference of the United States, researchers found that the median cost of a federal death penalty case that went to trial was $269,139 between 1989 and 1997. Between 1998 and 2004, it had grown to $620,932. Empirical data on state costs is not available.
“I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don’t seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” a Texas prosecutor told Slate in a recent piece about why capital punishment cases are on the decline, even in Texas, which is notorious for seeking the ultimate penalty. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don’t have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”
Contrary to what many think, the death sentence "is not the quickest way to conclude a case," Long told Fusion. "The numbers usually show that in fact it's just the opposite."
Even so, the prosecution in Rogers' case is not convinced that it isn't worth seeking the death penalty (for the fourth time) in the case. The state hasn't executed someone since 1997, but it's apparently resolute on killing Rogers.
"I spoke earlier of closure or the lack of it," De Vore, the father of one of Rogers' victims, quoted above, told the court. "I spoke of a hope of never having to spend another day in a courtroom because of another Rogers trial."
"My hopes will be granted when Rogers is dead," he said.
At this point, it's almost as likely that Rogers dies from old age than from a state execution. The only difference is that if the state had chosen the cheaper route, De Vore would have likely last set foot in the courtroom nearly 30 years ago. Maybe then, he would have enjoyed some sense of closure.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.