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.
Posted by Rebecca Rose McLaughlin on December 2nd, 2008
DPF has so many great events throughout the year, not only is it a chance to meet the staff and hear firsthand about the exciting progress we've made, it's also an opportunity for you to meet others in our movement! It's networking that creates strong communities of abolitionists, communities of mobilized, educated activists and advocates, ready to fight back and speak out in the fight to end the death penalty. We will need to rely on these communities for the long fight we have ahead. Don't miss your chance to meet others who share your passion and beliefs!
It has been just over one year since I became the Spokesperson and Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. My brother Bob was murdered in 2003 and, while I still wait for someone to be charged in my brother's murder, my opposition to the death penalty grows stronger with everything I have learned in the past twelve months.
As the Spokesperson for CCV, I have had the privilege to meet many murder victim family members whose reasons for opposing the death penalty vary, but whose convictions against capital punishment are consistent and absolute. They are an inspiration to me.
In January, February, and March of this year, CCV had a crucial presence during the public hearings of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice on the death penalty. I listened to the stories of many victims’ family members who had not spoken publicly before. The stories I heard are as moving as they are inspirational.
At the Annual Victims’ March during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week in Sacramento I was struck by the sheer numbers of victims’ family members who stopped at the CCV table to sign their names to the growing list of family members and survivors who stand against the death penalty. It became clear to me on that bright April day on the Capitol steps that when murder victim family members are presented with facts and honest appraisals of what the death penalty means to them and to society as a whole, they unite in opposition to capital punishment.
Last month, CCV completed a speaking engagement tour of Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Once again we were met with victims who, without hesitation, conveyed their opposition to capital punishment. There is no clearer voice of reason in this debate than the voice of the victims’ families proclaiming with clarity and resolve that the death penalty does not serve them, that the death penalty causes them more pain, and that the cost of the death penalty in every county in California is a cost that detracts from other vital services that can keep us safe and prevent further crimes.
Our efforts will continue to strengthen and grow. Our strategy going forward is clear. We recognize that the road ahead is long but never so long as the night when we lost our family members to violence. Your support and dedication are part of the reason we continue to speak of our terrible tragedies and part of the reason we can raise our voices together against the death penalty.
When one reads, as I did a few days ago, about a terrible crime: in this case, the unprovoked murder of a young girl, which took place twenty seven years ago [see article], one's initial instinctive response is quite likely to be "that man deserves to die".
And yet when one reflects further on the issue, what would the death of the murderer achieve? Some would argue that the victim's family would see justice done. But what sort of justice would that be? Many victims of crime have realized that a life for a life is no way to ease their pain. The life of their loved one will never be restored. Some of those who have lost people to violence are outspoken against the death penalty.
And then I read further into the article I discovered that the person who committed the crime had already been recognized as a sociopath and had served time in a mental facility. Why had he ever been let out? Perhaps society had failed him and itself with an inadequate mental health care system.
So what should society do in such a situation? In my opinion, a society who calculatedly murders anyone, let alone someone who is severely mentally ill, is only perpetuating the violence they seek to punish.
Let us also reflect on the practical implications of a death penalty in California today. This case has lingered on for twenty seven years with no resolution, which has cost the state millions of dollars, and forced the victims' family to keep waiting for an execution that may never happen. If there were no death penalty, the situation would have been resolved years ago with a sentence of life without parole. The murderer would die in prison without all the added cost of death penalty appeals and all of the media attention.
As it is now, he is more likely to die in prison than by execution. This less violent solution would free up resources to be spent on improved mental health care services or to support of victims of violent crime.
The best bit of news I have read this week is that a county in Ohio is finding it difficult to gather a jury for a death penalty case. People, apparently, do not feel happy about taking responsibility for whether another human being lives or dies. To me, this is pleasing. Personally I do not think anyone should be given this responsibility; not jurors, judges, governors or the prison staff we ask to carry out the executions. As fellow human beings, none of us should have to carry this burden.
Each of us has been given life. If we suffer the misfortune of losing it due to the violence of another human being, nothing can restore it to us. The loss of our life would be the responsibility of the person who took it. This is a responsibility he/she should bear for the rest of his/her natural life. Even if the murderer were to ask for the death penalty, no one should have to accept the responsibility of fulfilling his request--killing another human being.
How many people who support the death penalty in theory would be prepared to carry out the act of carefully planned murder? Yes, I have met some who say they would gladly kill a person convicted of heinous crimes, but how would they do this in practice? Where does it put them in relation to the murderer?
In my opinion, if the world is to become a better place, the governments of the world should take the moral high ground by treating criminals with justice, not with violence comparable to the crime that was committed. Those who take the life of a human being and spoil the lives of other human beings should be incarcerated - and for the most heinous crimes this should be indefinitely - in prison with no possibility of parole. This way, the criminal can live to take responsibility for his/her action and work if they wish toward some sort of redemption before their natural death.
Sheila Michell is a volunteer with Death Penalty Focus.