Posted by Alejandro Villasenor on March 14th, 2009
PO Box 821
South San Francisco, CA 94083
Office of the Governor
490 Old Santa Fe Trail Room 400
Santa Fe, NM 87501
Open letter to Governor Richardson
First and foremost I have to say that as Chicano, it makes me proud to see you, a fellow brown man, have achieved so much in your life. You are an amazing example for Raza all over the US. I had hoped that you would have been more successful in your presidential bid. A brown man in the white house would have been historic. Although you did not accomplish that you find yourself at a moment where you can do something historic: Abolishment of the death penalty.
Governor Richardson, before you is HB285; ready for your signature. Please sign it. For many years studies and reports have shown that the death penalty has been applied in a discriminatory fashion. In a 1990 report the General Accounting Office concluded that "in 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks." So here you are, a man of color, with an opportunity to take a stand against a racist legal instrument. With your signature on this bill you will send a message that you and New Mexico will not stand for the use of a racist policy cloaked in the word Justice. True justice is not applied in a racist way. I know you understand this.
Not only is the death penalty a racist tool but also one that is heavily flawed and wasteful. The wrongful execution of an innocent person is an injustice that can never be rectified. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 129 men and women have been released from Death Row nationally. Moreover, it costs far more to execute a person than to keep him or her in prison for life. The US Supreme Court has recently discussed the evolving standards in this country. Those standards are evolving towards the end of the death penalty; look at Illinois, New York, and New Jersey not to mention the European Union and many Central and South American Countries all who do not have the Death Penalty.
Many people say “the pen is mightier then the sword” but often it is hard to point to one instance where this actually is true. If you use your pen to sign HB285 then your pen will be mightier then the sword, electric chair, gas chamber, hypodermic needle filled with poison and all other state approved execution methods.
Sign the bill Governor Richardson. Do not be mislead by those who say eliminating the death penalty would usher in more violence. Those people are nothing more then fear mongers. Under this bill the sentence one would face would be Life Without the Possibility of Parole. That means what is says, no parole for this person. They would never see freedom.
Governor Richardson, send a message to the world that New Mexico is aware that the death penalty is flawed. Send a message to the country that New Mexico and its citizens will not stand for a penalty that is racist, expensive, and flawed.
On March 10, 1983, when young Bruce Lisker visited his parents' home in Sherman Oaks to borrow a tool for repairing his car, he found his mother, Dorka Lisker, lying unconscious inside the front entrance from stab wounds and bludgeoning injuries. He called paramedics, but to no avail: she would die that afternoon. Thus, at age 17, Lisker began his ordeal as the family member of a murder victim.
However, that same afternoon, Lisker was also initiated into a continuing 26-year ordeal which may finally be near its end: being falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for his mother's murder. On March 2nd, federal Magistrate Ralph Zarefsky of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California released a report recommending that Lisker be granted habeas corpus and either retried or released by the State of California within 120 days. If adopted by federal district Judge Virginia A. Phillips, these findings will likely lead to Lisker's freedom, since the case against him has essentially been ripped to shreds, leaving little credible basis for a retrial.
Although Bruce Lisker was fortunate at least in being convicted of second degree murder rather than a capital offense -- with a sentence of "only" 16 years to life -- his ordeal should be a warning of what can and does happen in California and across the nation. To date, at least 130 death row prisoners have been exonerated since 1972.
Despite glaring problems with the crime scene evidence used at trial, Lisker has waited 22 years for justice. Thanks to the efforts of his appellate attorneys, and investigative reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait of the Los Angeles Times, a new investigation finally happened four years ago. Since then, Lisker has waited in prison for justice to take its course through a fair retrial or release.
Given this record, proposals to control the intolerable costs of the death penalty in California by instituting an assembly line process with no more than five years between conviction and execution must be called no less than obscene.
In Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted for the 1991 murder by arson of his three young daughters. Scientific analysis has now shown that the fire was most likely accidental. Yet on February 17, 2004, Governor Rick Perry let Willingham's execution proceed, despite an expert report which cast doubt on the arson theory. Had he been sentenced instead to death in prison -- life without parole -- then it might have been possible, as with Lisker, to at least remedy the wrongful conviction.
The cases of Bruce Lisker and Cameron Todd Willingham teach a lesson for us all: the machinery of death is unsafe at any speed.
To the United States, Europe often represents our past. Our social and cultural institutions are a large, diverse melting pot, but were built on a European base. Our legal system and our democratic principles came across the Atlantic. Now, Europe is guiding us to our humanitarian future.
Italy's abolitionist movement has pride of place in the international journey away from the barbarism of state killing. On November 30, 1786, Pietro Leopoldo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, signed the first recorded abolition by a State, the Leopoldina. More than two centuries ago, by also abolishing torture, he put into practice what the United States is still learning, that the death penalty is torture - it is the greatest and ultimate violation of human rights and must - and will - be abolished.
As we emerge from a period of American political life when torture was sanctioned at the highest levels of government, when federal prosecutors were ordered to seek the death penalty against their own professional judgment, when weapons were treated as the only way to communicate with other nations, we find guidance in human rights standards and goals established in Europe following the devastation of World War II. For 60 years, the Council of Europe has worked to maintain respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as the foundations of a tolerant and civilized society, and the United States has been eager to regain our pride in our high moral standards.
The death penalty in the United States is losing support for many reasons: it is a terrible waste of a huge amount of money, draining ever scarcer resources from plans and programs that can truly enhance our safety and better our lives - solving unsolved cases, improving forensic capabilities, providing community policing and hiring teachers, to name a few; it is not a deterrent and does not keep us safer; it is racially biased; it is biased against the poor; it convicts, imprisons and executes innocent people. And it is cruel, inhuman and degrading, as our European friends have known for generations.
Italy's adoption of Protocol 13 abolishing the last vestiges of its death penalty is another example for us to follow into the future of the small world we all share, and which our country is rejoining as a leader once again. In this new era, the US will follow a new strategy, as President Obama said, that balances with our military might all the other elements of our power, including "the power of our moral example." "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," he said at his inaugural. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Those ideals still light the world...."
The strength of moral leadership is being felt in the United States and throughout the world on the issue of the death penalty. Death Penalty Focus serves on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, where abolitionist and retentionist nations work together toward universal abolition of the death penalty. Life is winning. World Day Against the Death Penalty, October 10, is also European Day Against the Death Penalty. This year, the international focus is on Teaching Abolition. We will be Teaching Abolition in high schools and law schools in the US and around the world. Next year, the focus of the World Coalition will be on the US. We are all in this together.
We are all in it together on November 30 each year, the anniversary of that first recorded abolition in Tuscany. On that day of World Cities Against the Death Penalty in 2008, close to a Thousand cities around the world illuminated their monuments, symbolizing enlightenment, celebrating our theme, "No Justice Without Life.""
A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times reports on the death from natural causes of Thomas Francis Edwards after some 20 years of Death Row confinement. The story of Edwards and his two young victims, Vanessa Iberri and Kelly Cartier, deserves much careful reflection as Californians consider
how best to promote our common safety during a time of fiscal crisis.
On September 19, 1981, Vanessa and Kelly, both 12, were enjoying a
Saturday afternoon walk together near an Orange County site called
Bluejay Campground. They were camping with Vanessa's mother and stepfather,
and enjoying a weekend that many of us look forward to, or
remember with pleasure from our own childhoods.
Then, a truck pulled up next to the two, and the driver called out
As they reacted to this call, he fired two pistol shots, the first shot killing Vanessa, and the second seriously
but not fatally wounding Kelly.
After an extensive nationwide search, the truck's driver, Thomas
Francis Edwards, was arrested nine days later in Maryland.
The decision of the California Supreme Court in 1991 notes these
facts, and also his admission to a deputy sheriff before his trial
that he was "guilty as sin." Indeed Edward's guilt was not contested,
only the precise category of murder involved.
The prosecution argued, and the jury agreed, that this was a case of
an intentional killing while "lying in wait" for the victim, and thus
a first degree murder with special circumstances subject to a penalty
of either death or life without possibility of parole. As the
of the Supreme Court explained, Edwards had followed or stalked
Vanessa and Kelly in his truck, and then suddenly attacked them with
his pistol from "a position of advantage" -- using his call of
to attract their attention so that they would be easy targets.
In simple human terms, no one can sum up the horrors of the crime
better than Kelly Cartier, who shortly after the shooting said, "I
don't want to die. Why me? Is Vanessa all right?" If two young women
on an innocent Saturday afternoon walk can suddenly be shot, and one
killed, then are any of us really safe? As Justice Arabian wrote,
two victims "should have had their entire lives ahead of them."
If Edwards had received a sentence of permanent imprisonment, instead of the death penalty, then the case would have been resolved immediately, with Edwards sentenced to die in prison -- as he did last month, after 25 years behind bars.
If Edwards had simply been sentenced to permanent imprisonment, we could have avoided the staggering expense of a capital case, the media frenzy, the moral agony suffered by the jurors and justices tasked with deciding his fate, and the suffering of the victims' families waiting for a execution that would never occur.
Those of us opposed to the death penalty wish in no way to minimize
neatly sanitize the horror and tragedy experienced by victims of
senseless violence such as Vanessa Iberri, Kelly Cartier, and their
families and communities. To the contrary, we want to focus our limited resources on
effective law enforcement and victim support efforts which serve us
much better than the futile and costly rituals of state-sponsored killing.
After viewing this video, I am curious to read Cahill's new book A Saint on Death Row, The Story of Dominique Green. And, I'm very eager to hear Cahill speak when he comes to the Bay Area bookstore Book Passage in April.
In the video, Cahill states that 1 out of every 8 people on death row are found to be innocent, which is deeply disturbing. I'm even more troubled by the fact that so many of our tax dollars are spent on prisons instead of on educating and helping children, like Dominique Green, when they need it the most.
The wonderful reviews of A Saint on Death Row by both Sister Helen Prejean and Archbishop Desmond Tutu make this a must read for me.
Recently, I learned of three hangings that took place in Japan on January 28: Tetsuya Sato, Shojiro Nishimoto, and Tadashi Makino. The accelerated pace of executions in a country where, as in California, death row prisoners have often spent many years or even decades under sentence of death before the ritual of killing takes place, is a tragic development. However, I hope it will meet a strong response from Japanese abolitionists and human rights activists.
Japanese history here provides a source of pride and hope. Sometime around the year 818, Emperor Saga abolished capital punishment in Japan, a policy which reflected the highest values of the country's leading faith traditions of Shinto and Buddhism, and remained in place for almost three and a half centuries until 1159. This long era of abolition was culturally a rich one, including the great novelist and diarist Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) whose Tale of Genji has become a classic of Japanese and world literature.
Sadly, the death penalty returned to Japan in the wake of a political struggle for power known as the Heiji no Ran, or "Heiji disturbance." Once reintroduced for what might now be called "extraordinary" political crimes, capital punishment was in time also applied to more common civil crimes.
One criticism of the current Japanese death penalty system focuses on the practice of not notifying the prisoner in advance of the scheduled date of execution, but announcing this only on the appointed day itself, within a few hours of the actual hanging. Prisoners thus spend many months or years in continual fear and apprehension that each day may be the fatal one, that each footstep one hears approaching one's cell may herald the announcement of one's walk to the gallows.
Of course, the equally inhumane customs of carrying out executions in California and elsewhere in the U.S.A. have also rightly drawn international protest: the years of confinement, the media circuses, and the unholy rush of prosecutors to defeat last-minute stays and even to fan public hatred against the condemned prisoner.
Fortunately, the 21st-century peoples and nations on both sides of the Pacific have a better choice, the one shown for us 1200 years ago by the noble Emperor Saga: stop tinkering with the machinery of death.
In Uganda significant death penalty reforms and discussion are taking place. Mandatory death sentences have been abolished and if a death sentence not carried out within three years of the conviction, the sentence automatically converts into a life sentence because they believe that the accused has suffered psychologically beyond the intent of the conviction. This ruling has caused debate within the Ugandan government about whether or not to amend the constitution to abolish the death penalty altogether.
This would seem to be the natural step for any civilised society - to maintain the dignity of the state by avoiding further loss of life and the possibility of killing an innocent party.
What happens to the
children of men or women on death
row? How have these children coped? What have their formative years been like? What effect has a death sentence had on them? How do they think of their father or mother - not knowing whether they will live or when they might be executed? How difficult is it for them, as they go through school and university to confidently establish their own identity?
And what of the condemned person's parents? How do they live knowing their son or daughter is under a sentences of death? How would an execution affect them?
It seems that the death penalty punishes the family of the condemned man--particularly the children--almost as much as it punishes him. This is yet another reason for abolishing the death penalty in my opinion. Imprisonment of a loved one is difficult enough for a family to handle, but the years of stress and waiting that comes with a sentence of death and the final agony of an execution must be unbearable.
If these prisoners were instead given life sentences with no chance of parole, they would live out their natural lives in prison. This would not mean living lives of comfort – prison is no holiday camp -- but this would allow the children of the condemned to have a relationship with
their convicted parent should they ever desire to. The condemned's parents would be spared the seemingly endless anxiety and the feelings of helplessness that go with knowing your child is waiting to be killed.
At this moment there are almost 700 hundred families in California living under the shadow of the death penalty. Is this humane? And how many people throughout the United States live in a similar state of stress or have suffered the agony of seeing their loved one executed - even perhaps someone they know to be innocent?
I am not condoning the horrendous and brutal actions that have been committed by the guilty on death row. The suffering they have caused is unthinkably terrible. Yet, the death penalty spreads suffering even further by hurting even more innocent people--the families of the condemned. People who are dangerous to society should be removed from society for as long as necessary, but killing them in a cold and calculated manner only widens the circle of suffering. We can do better.
You're invited to Death Penalty Focus's Big Benefit Bash in conjunction with the CPDA/ CACJ Conference in Monterey, CA.
Saturday, February 14, 2009 Time: 8:00 - 11:00 pm Location: Monterey Museum of Art 720 Via Mirada, Monterey, CA
Join Mike Farrell of M*A*S*H*, Loretta Swit of M*A*S*H* and Shelley Fabares of Coach at Death Penalty Focus' Annual Benefit Bash in Monterey for an evening of music, dancing and silent auction. And don't miss the performance by Barry "The Fish" Melton (of Country Joe and the Fish) and his band!
We hope to see you there!
TICKETS CAN BE PURCHASED AT THE DOOR FOR $35 EACH. Tickets include admission, two drink tickets, and a free shuttle from the Portola Plaza hotel in downtown Monterey.
Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an appropriate occasion to apply his values and vision to the question of the death penalty. His eloquent call for abolition was reaffirmed after his assassination by his wife, Coretta Scott King:
"As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder."
While speaking as a victim, Ms. King may also have been at some level expressing another aspect of her experience as well. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Dr. King shared with her his premonition that he would meet exactly the same fate and would never live to be 40 (he died at age 39).
Already the victim of one murderous attempt, he had received a "stay of execution" when the assailant's knife narrowly missed his aorta.
Might it be said that through the rest of her husband's life, almost
4-1/2 years from the tragedy of Dallas to that of Memphis, she shared with him a kind of "Death Row" experience: the cold prospect of death by premeditated violence, albeit without benefit of a court's sentence?
Both of these civil and human rights activists stood for the ethic of a "beloved community," in which each person is valued. In such a community, the criminal justice system strikes a delicate balance in which the often opposed concepts of retribution and rehabilitation become largely synonymous.
Advocates of truly retributive justice such as R. A. Duff and Dan Markel explain that retribution seeks to correct the injustice of a crime while at the same time inviting the offender to embrace and live by the social values which the crime violated -- even if in a permanent prison setting. Thus the death penalty, far from being required for "retribution," is contrary to the retributive ideal, which emphasizes the humanity and moral responsibility of each person.
The nonviolent Civil Rights Movement itself illustrates this balance. In seeking our Nation's rehabiltation from the high offense of racism, activists such as the Kings and Ella Baker had to call the South and the country at large to a retributive accounting for the past. While they sought to change the hearts of the oppressors through love and persuasion, they also applied the peaceful but relentless force of boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and other forms of direct action. They sought to denounce and restrain the injustice while loving the offender as a member of the community, however misguided.
Yet this retribution was itself rehabilitative: segregationists were invited in a nonviolently forceful way to live by the very values of dignity and equality they had been trampling underfoot. To borrow the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. King and his colleagues pursued "truth and reconciliation."
These Martin Luther King Day reflections may have special meaning for those of us, including Yoko and myself on this blog, who advocate permanent imprisonment as an appropriate punishment for the worst crimes. Such imprisonment must be under safe and humane conditions, with opportunities for intellectual and moral development. As Yoko has well written, a key part of the punishment is "to reflect on what they have done to another human being for the rest of their life." The deeper the development of the offender's humanity and sense of conscience, the more profound does this punishment become -- society's best revenge or, rather, retribution.
Most states are facing drastic cuts in vital services because of the recession. Schools, health care, and law enforcement will have to get by with less. Death penalty cases, however, stand out, demanding more money even as executions become less likely. In this economic climate, they may be a luxury we can no longer afford.
According to a recent report released by the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty is being used less and executions are being carried out in only a few states. Yet the costs are becoming more of an issue as the pressure to avoid the mistakes of the past has grown. There were 37 executions in 2008; 95% of them were in the South and almost half were in just one state -- Texas. Executions and death sentences have been steadily dropping throughout the current decade. But millions of taxpayer dollars have to be spent to keep the vast apparatus of capital punishment in place.
California, for example, has 670 people on death row. Each one of them costs the state about $90,000 per year over what it would cost to keep them in prison if they were condemned to permanent imprisonment instead. In total, the state is spending $138 million per year, but only executes less than one person every two years, according to a recent state commission report. In fact, it's been almost three years since the state carried out any executions. California is now planning a new death row that will cost an additional $400 million. At the same time, the state is facing an unprecedented deficit of billions of dollars and is cutting many vital services. The state commission called the death penalty system "broken," "dysfunctional," and "close to collapse." Only more expenditures, they said, could possibly save it.
Almost every state is facing a financial crisis and 36 states have the death penalty. In Maryland, a state commission heard testimony that the costs of the death penalty over the past 28 years amounted to $37 million per execution. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution. The Los Angeles Times estimated that California spends $250 million per execution, when all the system's costs are taken into account.
There is no easy solution to this problem. Speeding up the appeals process or not paying lawyers adequate fees will end up costing states even more as trials will have to be done over a second time, or worse, result in the execution of innocent people. One hundred and thirty people have been exonerated from death row since 1973, including four in 2008. It took over 9 years on average between the conviction and the exoneration in these cases.
With all of these mistakes, the death penalty system has become slower and shows no signs speeding up. The average time between sentencing and execution increased to 12.7 years for those executed in 2007, the third year in a row in which the time has been over 12 years. For some cases in California, it took 25 years for a capital case to be completed, according to the state commission.
All of this expense and delay might be justified if there were some tangible benefit resulting from the death penalty. But for many victims' family members and representatives of law enforcement, the frustration and uncertainty of the death penalty make the option of a sentence of permanent imprisonment more reasonable. Only about 1% of the murders committed in this country result in a death sentence, and only a small percentage of those sentenced to death are ever executed many years later. Such a system makes little sense financially, or even retributively.
In the past, people were often scared into believing that the death penalty was needed to be tough on crime. Today, the death penalty is more like a bridge to nowhere--an expensive government program that does not advance the general good. It may be time to let this extravagance go.
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Richard C. Dieter is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Posted by Rebecca Rose McLaughlin on January 5th, 2009
As you may know, the non-profit/charity world was hit hard by the recent scandal involving Bernard Madoff and his alleged "Ponzi" scheme. Close to $73 million of various foundation money was invested with Madoff in 2007 alone. That means that tens of millions of dollars that was earmarked for numerous vital causes, including criminal justice reform, has literally been wiped from existence. This, in combination with the mounting economic crisis in our country, has had a devastating impact to the non-profit sector, and more importantly, to the countless people it helps each day.
While this scandal has not specifically impacted us here at Death Penalty Focus, we certainly have begun to feel the tremors of this financial quake, as major foundations drastically cut or eliminate their grant funding altogether. Like virtually all non-profit organizations, we will feel this impact in the months, and possible years, to come. But we also feel the strength and support of our members every day and realize that no matter what happens, this movement can survive anything. It is your commitment to our work that has made it grow so strong for these many years. We must continue to stay focused on our goal of eliminating the death penalty. Nothing has changed for us here at DPF! We are still fighting and working hard every day for cause. And you must continue to fight alongside us!
I realize that the economy has made everyone take a "financial step backward", so to speak. But if you step too far back now, we may face worse times than we ever could have expected. It is now up to you, the loyal abolitionist who has been with us from the beginning, to help get us through these times. Consider a monthly donation (less than the cost of a daily cup of coffee!) or perhaps a one-time gift, to fund our many new and exciting programs slated for 2009. Also, don't forget to watch out for our Action Alerts, that highlight the specific ways you can act to immediately make a difference in the fight to end the death penalty.
Remember, as you watch the news and follow the details of this slowly unfolding drama, there is a good chance that it does affect the work that you have so tirelessly supported for all these years.
I recently read the book “The Electric Chair” by Lama Milkweed Augustine Ph.D. Dr. Augustine writes the story in first-person about witnessing her uncle’s electrocution when she was young, although she keeps the reader guessing as to whether the experience is fact or fiction (you will have to find out for yourself!). The story dramatizes the horrifying course of events. The execution becomes engraved in her mind and she has to live with this dreadful memory for the rest of her life.
Executions are often thought to provide some sort of closure or finality, but in reality the victims’ families and also families of the executed, like Dr. Augustine’s character, keep struggling with the issue long after the event.
We often hear about the anguish of murder victims’ families (some who support the death penalty and others who oppose it), but Dr. Augustine’s book reminds us that the families of the condemned, who are often ignored, also suffer tremendously as their lives are also disrupted and torn apart by the crime.
We have no right to diminish any person’s life whether they are victims or not. And prisoners who have been convicted of heinous crimes should be confined in prison and reflect on what they have done to another human being for the rest of their life. That’s what I think would be the appropriate punishment. I don’t believe state sanctioned killing is an appropriate punishment in any case.
Dr. Augustine has devoted her life to giving a voice to the condemned and their families, and is fighting against leukemia today.
The Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution last week (December 8, 2008) that calls on the District Attorney of Alameda County to stop pursuing the death penalty and to focus instead on investing public resources in solving homicides, preventing violence, and expanding public safety programs.
Alameda County has historically been one of the most aggressive death sentencing counties in California, sending more people to death row than any Bay Area county, even after adjusting for murder rates and population size.
"Sentencing people to execution costs far more than condemning them to permanent imprisonment," said Delane Sims, who works as an outreach coordinator for the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (ACCADP). "Relying on the death penalty strains our county's resources and compromises our ability to pursue effective public safety programs - which is especially important in Alameda County."
A trial seeking execution in California costs at least $1.1. million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, called "life without parole."
The resolution was brought by the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a coalition of Northern California human rights organizations whose members include Death Penalty Focus, Amnesty International, the Bay Association of the United Church of Christ, Progressive Jewish Alliance, eight local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Kehilla Community Synagogue and the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.
In 2006, two out of three murders in Alameda County went unsolved.
"As residents of Alameda County, we all know that we desperately need more resources for more effective violence prevention and intervention," added Sims. Like Sims, a number of activists involved with ACCADP have lost a loved one to murder, and oppose the death penalty on both moral and practical grounds.
The Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (ACCADP) comprises a broad spectrum of community leaders and organizations working together to increase public safety by promoting effective alternatives to the death penalty.
This week marks the first anniversary of two critical steps on the road to global abolition of the death penalty. On December 17, 2007, the state of New Jersey enacted a law abolishing capital punishment for all offenses. The following day, December 18, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
The drumbeat of progress now continues with the release on December 12 of the final report of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. This report calls for total abolition, drawing on the recent experience of New Jersey as well as a thorough and enlightening analysis of the racial and geographic disparities in the Maryland death penalty system.
Chaired by Benjamin R. Civiletti, who served as Attorney General of the United States under President Carter, the Maryland Commission places emphasis on the need to improve services for families of murder victims and to redirect society's resources to measures which can prevent homicides. A successful program by the Baltimore police department to reduce the number of murders is cited as an example of how public funds can and should be spent effectively. In contrast, the Commission confirms the conclusion of many studies that the death penalty is no more a deterrent than permanent imprisonment.
In California, the same basic considerations apply, but with yet more fiscal urgency. In its report of this June 30, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimated that our state could save at least $125 million annually by abolishing the death penalty and making permanent imprisonment the uniform penalty for all capital crimes.
Better services for crime victims and their families, smarter prevention efforts like those of the Baltimore police, and new initiatives to raise clearance rates for homicide and reopen "cold cases" seem wiser priorities than spending more years and dollars in an effort to kill people who spend the rest of their natural lives in prison.
Here in California, as in New Jersey and Maryland and around the world, the drumbeat of progress and the voice of common sense point in the same direction: abolition.
Eric Holder, Barack Obama's nominee for Attorney General of the United States and a personal opponent of the death penalty, might draw inspiration from a worthy historical mentor and predecessor in this high office: William Bradford (1755-1795).
Bradford, a premier law enforcement official and jurist during the Revolutionary and early federal eras, served as Attorney General of Pennsylvania and then as a Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. These were exciting and often tumultuous years when Pennsylvania moved to enact a more humane scheme of criminal justice and build a modern prison system. In 1794, he was appointed U. S. Attorney General under President George Washington, serving until his death the following year.
Bradford deserves special credit for two legal innovations presented in a report to the Governor of Pennsylvania in 1793. The first was an argument that the death penalty may well in fact be "unnecessary," and thus unconstitutionally "cruel," for any crime including even deliberate murder.
Holding that the main purposes of punishment are "to prevent the offender from repeating the crime, and to deter others from its commission," Bradford concludes that imprisonment can meet both of these purposes. "If, therefore, these two objects can be obtained by any penalty short of death, to take away life, in such case, seems to
be an unauthorized act of power." Further, Bradford emphasizes that imprisonment leaves room for the "reformation" of the offender -- a vital goal more recently known as "rehabilitation."
Bradford's second and better-known innovation was his proposal for dividing the crime of murder into degrees, quickly adopted by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1794 and since then by the vast majority of the States. Murder in the first degree as he originally defined it would be confined to acts of "deliberate assassination." His legislative program was aimed at abolishing capital punishment for all crimes other than first degree murder (and possibly high treason) as a first step towards total abolition.
As U.S. Attorney General under President Obama, Eric Holder may have the precious opportunity, as well as daunting task, of helping to complete his predecessor William Bradford's labor of reform by nudging the United States in the direction of the growing majority of world nations which have moved beyond executions to more enlightened means of law enforcement.
There is a new season upon us; call it what you will, there is change afoot in the world. Whether you supported him or not, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States augurs a new vision for our country, a new thinking about our place on the globe.
According to the New York Times the recent election unleashed "a flood of hope" in the world community. With that flood, I trust, will come the opportunity not only for new thinking about America's place in the world, but also about the people's place in America.
An America that lives in hope, with a healthy excitement about promise and opportunity, is a nation that allows us to step away from the grip of fear that has lain over us like a shroud for too many years. It is a nation that looks upward, once again embracing the idea of community, daring to stand on principle, willing to find a better way.
At Death Penalty Focus, we believe this new era offers the opportunity to re-examine a system that incarcerates more of its citizens than any country on earth, a system whose costs rival what we spend on educating our children, and ask ourselves where this is leading. Instead of continuing this mad rush toward moral and economic bankruptcy, we believe it is time to turn away from retribution, to cast aside tired posturing about being "tough on crime" and begin being "smart on crime." And a way to mark this beginning, a way to demonstrate to our children that fear and hatred and a bloodlust for revenge serve no human purpose, is put an end to the execrable practice of state killing - the extermination of caged, helpless human beings - and replace it with a sentence of permanent imprisonment for those who might be a continued threat to public safety.
It is long past time for us to join the world's developed nations, all of whom have done away with capital punishment. This new and hopeful season provides the opportunity. We at Death Penalty Focus will do our part. With your help, we will succeed.