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Tennessee taxpayers spent more than $600,000 to keep mass murderer Paul Dennis Reid alive so they could execute him.

But they never got the chance.

Instead, one of the state's most notorious killers died Nov. 1, not strapped to a gurney on death row, but in a bed at Nashville General Hospital at Meharry. Cause of death? Complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.

It was a death that brought no relief to some of the survivors of Reid's victims, seven people he killed in a 1997 Middle Tennessee murder spree. Connie Black's daughter Michelle Mace was one of seven people Reid killed during three fast-food restaurant shootings.

"It wasn't supposed to happen this way," she said the day Reid died. "He just died a normal death like everyone else."

Since 2000, when executions in Tennessee resumed after a 40-year hiatus, nine death row inmates have died of natural causes and another committed suicide. Six have been executed.

These deaths raise questions about not only the efficiency, but also the economics of having the death penalty in Tennessee. A 2004 study commissioned by the Tennessee comptroller of the Treasury concluded that the death penalty was cheaper than life in prison, in terms of housing costs. But that assumed inmates actually would be executed, something that hasn't been done since 2009.

Instead, the No. 1 killer of death row inmates is natural causes.

A two-sided argument

Such stories lead to rare agreement among both supporters and opponents of the death penalty: It costs too much.

But it's an argument that cuts both ways. Death penalty supporters say such costs prove that the criminal justice system takes too long and allows too many legal appeals to mete out efficient justice. Opponents say the costs prove that the death penalty is a waste of money and that life sentences would save taxpayers millions with the same result — death in the criminal justice system.

"If there weren't so many, I believe frivolous suits to delay the death penalty, it wouldn't cost so much," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. "We've had people on death row since 1986, 1982. We really don't have a death penalty, to be honest."

Opponents counter that innocent people have been put on death row across the nation, only to later be exonerated because of the lengthy appeals process. Because of that, the condemned have access to extra attorneys who file appeals in both state and federal courts.

"If you just give up the appeals and deny counsel, the number of innocent that you put to death will rise," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, who has worked on Reid's case and represents many death row inmates.

With 14 death row inmates 60 years old or older, hospital beds could be busier than the execution chamber.

Getting a handle on costs

The 2004 Tennessee study wasn't able to put an actual price tag on the death penalty, including what it costs to house, take care of, defend and execute an inmate.

Some of the costs include salaries of prosecutors and defense attorneys in state and federal courts, the cost for the use of the courtrooms themselves and costs for experts. Medical costs are difficult because the state's medical provider handles all costs below $50,000. The state pays only when the costs exceed that amount.

The cost to house inmates is easier to determine, using the average daily housing cost for inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, where male death row inmates are generally housed. By that standard, Tennesseans paid at least $2,839,882.50 to house the 75 males still alive on death row in the 2013 fiscal year.There's one female on death row, Christa Pike, who is housed in the Tennessee Prison for Women.

In Reid's case, the state paid $43,000 for his medical costs since 2010, meaning his total medical costs were at least $93,000, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. The total cost to house him was at least $427,747.20 from the time he was sentenced to die April 20, 1999, until his death in November.

While in the hospital, he was visited by his two sisters, who thought his health was improving, Henry said.

That angers Ramsey, who said he feels for the families who have gone through a "literal hell" only to see a murderer die in prison. He said cases such as Reid's make him hopeful that the state's recent push to restart the death penalty will be successful.

Henry said Reid should never have been on death row to begin with, because he was brain damaged and mentally ill. But most of all, she said, life without parole — Reid's ultimate punishment — serves the same purpose as the death penalty.

"You can still protect society. Life without parole is a horrible punishment," she said. "Life without parole is not only less expensive, but more effective."

Death row deaths

Before 2000, Tennessee's death penalty had been put hold. Since Robert Coe was put to death that year, 10 death row inmates have died of causes other than execution — nine of them dying of natural causes. Tennessee has executed six inmates since 2000.

Anatomy of a killer's death

On Nov. 1, 2013, mass-murderer Paul Dennis Reid died at Nashville General Hospital at Meharry. He had been convicted of murdering seven fast-food restaurant workers in Nashville and Clarksville in 1997 and sentenced to die seven times that same year. It's difficult to say exactly how much it cost taxpayers to defend, convict and house him in his 14 years on death row. Here's a list of what costs we can estimate:

At least $427,747.20

Housing costs: At least $427,747.20

Health care costs: At least $93,000

Trial costs: $46,791*

Appointed attorneys in state court (does not include public defenders' salaries): $17,558.14

Experts in state court: $25,697.25

Minimum total costs to Tennessee taxpayers: $610,793.59

*Estimates based on a 2004 Comptroller of the Treasury report looking at capital punishment cases from 1993-2003

Source: Tennessee Department of Correction, Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts

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