When two murderers were given the death penalty, the locals never dreamed the convictions would nearly bankrupt their county. First the trials, then the appeals, and there is no end in sight.
It is hard to imagine the brutality of what happened here. Four members of the Parker family, Carl, Bobbie Jo, Gregory and Charlotte Jo, were shot down, tied up and burned inside their Quitman County, Miss., house.
That was nine years ago. Two men were convicted and sentenced to death for the murders. They are still alive. They keep appealing, and the citizens of Quitman County keep paying.
"We had to raise taxes to pay for this trial," says county official Butch Scipper, who runs Quitman County, which is learning costly lessons about the price of justice.
"We had to raise taxes over a three-year period, 2 [percent] to 3 percent a year on all property," Scipper explains.
Scipper had no choice. Even though Quitman County - deep in cotton country - is one of the nation's poorest, it was forced to spend $250,000 on this case to defend the murderers.
Mississippi is one of a handful of states that requires each county, rich or poor, to pay to defend criminals who can't afford a lawyer. For a death penalty case, the bill can be staggering.
"What worries me now is that these men still have appeals ahead of them that the county must pay, and I may have to raise taxes again," Scipper explains.
"That's adding salt to the wound," says Scott Parker, who with his brother Dean, makes up the two surviving sons of the Parker family.
"All I hear is 'appeal this' and 'appeal that,' 'raise this' and 'raise that.' Well, that's not doing no good. Those guys are still down there eating three meals a day," says Scott Parker, who still lives in Quitman County and pays taxes there.
Observes Scipper: "Scott Parker had to pay taxes for the defense of the two men convicted of murdering his family."
The man who killed Judy McAlpin's father never made it to death row. Jake Shivers was killed by his handyman, Milton Watts, at a hunting camp in another poor Mississippi county.
Watts shot Shivers 10 times, cut the phone lines, stole Shivers' wallet and truck, and ran. Prosecutors knew they could ask for the death penalty, and the victim's family demanded it.
"If your father had been shot 10 times, wouldn't you want it?" asks Judy McAlpin.
But when Judy McAlpin asked prosecutor Gil Martin to press for the death penalty, he told her he wouldn't.
Martin says cost was probably the principal reason for not pursuing the death penalty.
"His life was worth more than money," asserts Judy McAlpin.
Judy McAlpin and her husband Ernest wouldn't take no for an answer. They made a bizarre offer. If the county could not afford it, they wuld help pay for the trial - only if the district attorney would ask for the death penalty.
They were serious about the offer and prepared to sell everything they own, Judy McAlpin says. "If it [were] your dad, wouldn't you be serious?" she adds.
Their offer was rejected. Watts was convicted but sentenced to life, which means he's up for parole in about 15 years. It was cheaper that way.
"How much justice can we afford? Is there a price on justice?" asks Scipper.
Quitman County hasn't recovered from the cost of sending two men to death row. Taxpayers could still be forced to pay more.
At the same time, the county ambulance is on its last legs, and the county can't buy a new one.
Still more accused killers are awaiting trial and could benefit from the law of economics, because right now the supply of money does not equal the demand for death.
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