Monday, September 24, 2012

Death In Very Small Doses

The tide in favor of repealing the death penalty has risen over the past few years in many states. California is, of course, one of them. This November, Proposition 34 on the California ballot would repeal the death penalty. It is called the SAFE Act (savings, accountability and full enforcement). It would replace the death penalty with life sentences without possibility of parole. In many ways, the proposition has resulted from exhaustion in actual implementation of the penalty.

The proposition has many supporters, some of whom were earlier involved in reinstating the California death penalty in 1978, and even the author of an amendment which added additional crimes to the list of capital offenses. Though many supporters of the proposition are simply anti-death penalty, the number of those who still believe in the death penalty but are supporting the proposition is surprising. Unless you consider their reasoning.

To start with, there are 725 offenders on death row who have been convicted since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. But in all that time, only thirteen have actually been executed. Nature, circumstances and the assistance of other states have been more effective than the penalty itself. Fifty-seven have died of natural causes. Six have died from other causes or at the hands of fellow inmates. Twenty have died from suicide. One was executed in Missouri (that's one way of solving California's prison overcrowding problem). Currently, the executions have been on hold since one judge decided in 2006 that lethal injection might cause discomfort before it caused death.

So for thirteen actual executions, the special death row facilities have cost the people of the state of California $2 billion since 1978, according to the nonpartisan California Commission on the Fair Adminsitration of Justice. The Commission also concludes that multiple, repeat, and redundant, but often successful appeals have cost the taxpayers another $2 billion. Meanwhile, the families and friends of the victims get little closure as the remaining 700 or so death row inmates await appeals. Most experts calculate the chances of any more executions occurring in California at near zero. So instead of seeing the law carried out, the families and friends cringe at the thought of reduced sentences or even release of the murderers of their loved ones.

Justice delayed is justice denied. Yeah, we have to give convicted murderers their day in court, but does it have to take twenty or thirty years? Over such lengthy periods of time, justice is denied to the families and to the people of the state of California. Art imitates life. A very popular TV show called The Closer starred Kyra Sedgwick as an oddball deputy Los Angeles police chief who regularly solved murders resulting in the death penalty. This season, Sedgwick is gone, the series renamed Major Crimes and Sedgwick's replacement, Mary McDonnell as the head of the unit seeks to get convictions resulting in life without parole. Why? Because it's cheaper, more likely to be accepted by a jury, and the appellate process is far less convoluted and less subject to creative lawyering.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders recently wrote a column opposing Prop 34. On the Chronicle pages, Mark Klaas, father of kidnapped, tortured and murdered daughter Polly Klaas, says that the death penalty ultimately stops the nefarious activities of death row inmates. Polly's killer, Richard Allen Davis, has his own website. He has correspondence with young girls who don't understand what Davis did to Polly, and think of him as some sort of Justin Bieber of death row. Davis also shows his arts and crafts and personal photos on the website, hoping that enough people will see them to create a groundswell for getting him off death row.

Klaas and Saunders also argue that the death penalty results in plea deals for life without parole that would no longer be incentivized if the death penalty were repealed. Currently, life without parole is the backdown bargaining position of prosecutors in capital cases. Without the death penalty, the bargaining position would be backing down to a lesser charge which allows for parole.

I believe in the death penalty. But I also live in the real world, and have been an insider in the wonderful world of legal trickery. Though I have not yet made up my mind on Prop 34, I simply can no longer dismiss such legislation as being foolish heart-over-head liberal pap. Better a clear, and essentially final sentence of life without parole than a death sentence which will cost time, money, sorrow, and yet have little chance of ever being carried out.

So help me out here. What do you think? What are the death penalty statutes in your states, and how often are they actually applied? Each state is different, and California is not alone. In Pennsylvania, vile cop-killer Mumi Abu-Jamal finally wore the system down after thirty years of frivolous, lengthy and unsuccessful appeals. The state finally decided in December of 2011 simply to commute his sentence to life without parole to spare the wife and kids of the murdered police officer any further agony and the state any further expense of appeals.

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