Stefanie Silvey Investigates: The High Price of Indiana's Death Penalty - Tri-State News, Weather & Sports

Stefanie Silvey Investigates: The High Price of Indiana's Death Penalty

Reporter: Stefanie Silvey

Indiana taxpayers spend millions of dollars to send dozens to death row. But more than half of them are no longer there due to overturned convictions and sentences.

In our area, no one has been put to death for nearly sixty years. Warrick County taxpayers spent more than half a million dollars on John Stephenson's defense alone at his trial in 1997. That doesn't include any of the prosecutor's expenses to try Stephenson, his appeals, or his stay in prison.

Such high costs can keep small counties from seeking the death penalty altogether. During this investigation, we talked with one woman who says a price tag was put on her daughter's life. 

Lori Wentzel's 15 year old daughter Shannon was killed by three men. Wentzel says, "They all three raped her, they all three sodomized her..."

For no other reason than they were bored.

"...Stabbed her with a screw driver, hit her in the head with a beer bottle, ran over her not once, but 30 times."

And because they felt like it.

Wentzel says, "Those people should never be allowed back in society. Never. They should be put to death."

But they weren't.

Two received 55 year sentences, the other 95. They'll likely serve half of that.

It was a decision made by the Pike County prosecutor. Wentzel says, "He said no. The county didn't have that much money, that it would cost them a million dollars with the three of them."

Wentzel says a price tag shouldn't be put on her daughter's death. "Money shouldn't have been a factor. It shouldn't have been and it was. If it would have been that prosecutor's child from Pike County, I bet they would have found the money then."

Posey County prosecutor Jodi Ubelhack sympathizes with both Ms. Wentzel and Pike County's prosecutor. She recently faced three death penalty eligible cases in Posey County. "We only have two prosecutors that handle criminal matters. If you have three death penalty cases, then nothing else gets handled."

The rising costs of the death penalty have ignited a huge debate. With John Stephenson's defense costing more than half a million dollars, some say enough is enough. Clark County prosecutor Steven Stewart says, "Once the judges accept that and start spending that kind of money on every death penalty case, it's only a matter of time before the public at large says it's not worth it."

Nationally known defense attorney Gerry Spence has never lost a criminal case. He believes there should be unlimited spending in a death penalty case, but says a better option would be to eliminate the death penalty altogether. "I think life without parole is, we have to protect ourselves from killers. There's no question about that so, so society has created a killer. That doesn't mean that we want to turn that killer lose on society again. We should defend ourselves against that person but we should also defend ourselves against becoming killers ourselves."

But that's not enough for Lori Wentzel. "There's not one day... there's not one hour that goes by that I don't think about my daughter. Which in turn makes me think of them. To me, it's not right."

Two of Shannon Wentzel's killers are expected to be released in 17 years. Kelly Craig will be in his 40's, Brian Powell in his early 50's. The other man convicted of killing Shannon, Leon Jones recently wrote Shannon's mother a letter apologizing for what he did. Lori Wentzel says it's little comfort. Jones will be released in 2043.

In Kentucky, there is only one person from our area on Kentucky's death row. Robert Woodall killed Sara Hansen from Greenville, Kentucky in 1997.

The only person in Illinois from our area on death row, was Neils Neilsen. He killed his ex-wife and her daughter in 1995. That sentence was recently vacated and changed to life without parole when former Governor George Ryan left office and granted clemency to more than 100 death row inmates.

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