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Taxpayers spent $330,000 to defend man accused of killing Lt. Aaron Allan

'You really can't put a price on someone's life,' attorney Denise Turner said.
Posted at 5:50 PM, Oct 25, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS — When a prosecutor files death penalty charges in Indiana, that decision comes with a hefty price tag.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings knew this when he requested an extra $50,000 before he filed death penalty charges against the man accused of killing Elwood Police Officer Noah Shahnavaz, who was fatally shot July 31 during a traffic stop.

In Marion County, taxpayers spent nearly $330,000 to defend Jason Dane Brown in his murder trial for killing Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan in 2017. The costs mount even though Brown avoided execution and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Taxpayers paid for investigators and experts who built a defense for the death penalty, even though prosecutors dismissed the capital charge before the case went to trial.

"We're talking about literally life or death. And so it should be expensive. It should be costly," said Denise Turner, the lawyer who represented Brown in his criminal trial.

"You really can't put a price on someone's life, whether it's a victim's life or defendant's life. But yeah, there should be no expense spared when we're talking about the state trying to kill someone."

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Defense attorney Denise Turner.

In Indiana, the average cost of a death penalty case that goes to trial is about four times higher than the cost of a life without parole trial, according to a 2015 report by the state's Legislative Services Agency.

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Taxpayers spent nearly $330,000 on the legal defense for Jason Dane Brown, who faced a possible death penalty for killing Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan.

The added costs come from a Supreme Court rule in death penalty cases that requires what legal experts describe as "super due process."

Only the very rich can hire private attorneys in these cases, so with a few exceptions defendants facing the death penalty are provided taxpayer-funded public defenders. The Supreme Court has set up rules to make sure counties don't skimp in death penalty cases.

Under the rule, death penalty defendants automatically get two death penalty-qualified public defenders who get paid $129 an hour at taxpayer expense. Taxpayers must also provide experts and investigators to comb through the accused's past and find any tragic life events from the past that might mitigate any crimes of the present.

The county and the state split the costs of the defense expenses. Every penny spent must be approved by the judge and is tracked by the auditor's office.

In Marion County, taxpayers spent $329,119 on Brown's defense — and that was a discount because his attorneys took the case pro bono, or without pay. Had they been paid, Turner said the attorneys' fees in Brown's case would have easily climbed to more than $200,000 additional dollars.

The state paid investigators who traveled to several states to interview witnesses who testified about head injuries and abuses Brown suffered as a child. The state also paid for experts who testified that Brown had epilepsy that was never diagnosed. The defense argued he suffered a seizure when he shot Allan.

About 70% of the defense money went to mitigation specialist Michelle Rene Rushton ($118,056) and Carmel-based private investigation firm Veracity IIR ($112,538).

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Retired Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Larry Sells.

Larry Sells, a retired Marion County deputy prosecutor who handled six death penalty cases along with nearly 70 murder trials in his 25-year career, said these are the most dangerous defendants and they deserve the maximum punishment.

"Some cases, you look at them and you just know they should be eligible for the death penalty," Sells said.

These suspects have killed police officers, killed children, killed multiple victims, Sells said. Society, he said, must be protected from these most violent criminals, no matter the cost.

"Why should society, once a person has committed such horrendous acts, have to be concerned that this person in the future would be able to harm somebody else?" Sells said.

Brown was found guilty of Lt. Allan's murder after a six-day bench trial on Feb. 22.

Allan was among the first officers on the scene after Brown crashed and flipped a BMW in the 6600 block of South Madison Avenue on July 27, 2017. Brown was seat-belted and suspended in the upside-down car when he fired 18 shots, 11 of which hit Allan.

Remembering Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan

Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty but dropped it before the trial began in exchange for Brown's agreement to waive his right to a jury. The judge dismissed a life without parole enhancement during the trial, ruling that the state had failed to prove that Brown knew Allan was a police officer when he fired the shots.

Brown was sentenced to 55 years in prison with another three years suspended. He is appealing.

Eight men are currently on Death Row in Indiana, according to the Indiana Public Defender Council.

The state has imposed 97 death sentences since 1977; about two-thirds saw their cases overturned or died before being executed, according to the Public Defender Council.

Indiana hasn't executed a prisoner since Dec. 11, 2009, when Matthew Wrinkles died by lethal injection at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

Four more death penalty cases are pending in Indiana, including that of Carl Roy Webb Boards II, the man accused of killing Elwood Officer Shahnavaz.

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White carnations with a red dot are shown next to a photo of fallen Elwood Police Officer Noah Shahnavaz.

Boards, 42, was charged with murder and possession of a firearm as a serious violent felon and two counts of resisting law enforcement. Prosecutors say Boards fired at least 36 rounds at Shahnavaz, who had stopped him for a traffic violation. Shahnavaz never unholstered his gun.

In August, Cummings announced he was seeking the death penalty.

"The death sentence is the law in the state of Indiana," Cummings told reporters during an Aug. 17 news conference. "And if it's going to be pursued, this is the kind of case where it needs to be pursued. The family understands that. We had those discussions... We all have our own responsibility in this process, mine is to pursue the death penalty in an appropriate case."

"And this is that case."

More: Madison County prosecutor seeks $50,000 as he considers death penalty in Elwood cop's killing | Prosecutor will seek death penalty against suspect accused of killing Elwood Officer Noah Shahnavaz | 'It's expensive:' This is how much a death penalty case costs in Indiana

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.