Court-ordered costs owed by an Ohio death row inmate – who killed his girlfriend and her 83-year-old father – are keeping the prisoner so poor he can't afford basics like shoes or boots, civil rights lawyers say.
While condemned prisoner David Braden earns $16 a month in inmate pay, he is allowed to keep a maximum of only $25 in his commissary account as he pays off costs from his 1999 trial, according to a motion filed with the Ohio Supreme Court this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio on behalf of Braden.
The cheapest pair of prison shoes for purchase on death row cost $27.95, the ACLU said.
"The state of Ohio has incarcerated this person and has sentenced him to death — it doesn't need to take away his most basic dignities," said ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham.
Braden does have a pair of shoes now, she said.
The $25 limit means Braden has to choose necessities he can afford, including postage, medical co-pays and most toiletries, Braden's attorney said in a similar filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.
The prisoner owes about $1,600 of a $2,127.50 bill he received after sentencing nearly two decades ago.
To fix Braden's dilemma, a 2013 Ohio law allowing for the modification of court costs should also apply to inmates sentenced before then, according to his attorneys.
The state Supreme Court agreed to take the case but hasn't yet held oral arguments, and any decision is months away.
Numerous other states say judges must consider inmates' ability to pay, especially when it's clear they're basically penniless, Braden's attorneys argue.
The "court must consider whether the defendant remains indigent and whether repayment would cause manifest hardship," the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 2009.
In Ohio, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien says that the law is not retroactive and that Braden lost his right to appeal the costs by not challenging them earlier. Even if the law could be applied to earlier cases, the prosecutor said, it's still up to the judge.
"A trial court is not required to accept a payment plan simply because the defendant has offered one," O'Brien, a Republican, argued in a court filing.
Braden was sentenced to die for killing his girlfriend, 44-year-old Denise Roberts, and her father, 83-year-old Ralph Heimlich, at their Columbus home in 1998.
Roberts had tried to end her relationship with Braden, whom her father disliked, according to court records.
Last month, the state Supreme Court heard arguments over similar issues raised by another killer: whether judges should consider offenders' future ability to pay costs when they're asked to modify those expenses.
Lawyers for James Dunson — including the ACLU — say it will take him years to pay off the more than $6,000 in court costs assessed after his 2013 murder conviction.
The Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office in Dayton counters that nothing in state law requires judges to determine whether a prisoner has a present or future ability to pay court costs.
The two cases are part of a national debate over the use of fines and bail. In January, Ohio's Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor urged judges around the state to avoid imposing excessive fines, fees or bail simply to raise money.