I served as chief special prosecutor for the state of Montana for 21
years. During that time I was involved with the prosecution of many
homicide cases, including five death penalty cases involving homicides
committed by prison inmates against other inmates. I also managed the
prosecution of 14 inmates for the 1991 prison riot homicides.
I believed at the time that the death penalty was needed to keep
correctional officers safe from inmates serving a sentence of life
without parole. Without the threat of execution, I thought, there
would be no deterrent to prevent such inmates from taking the life of
a correctional officer.
But my direct experience prosecuting prison homicides changed my mind.
I have come to believe that the death penalty is an incalculable drain
on our limited criminal justice resources. It makes bizarre
celebrities of the sentenced inmates while essentially ignoring the
suffering that victims' families must endure through decades of legal
scrutiny. And frankly, it lessens our own humanity. It is time for
Montana to repeal it.
I would never advocate for repealing the penalty if I thought it
placed our correctional personnel at risk. During the years I
prosecuted cases of violence in the prison, I learned to greatly
admire and respect the dedicated corrections professionals that care
for and manage the inmate population in all of our state and county
detention facilities. Theirs is a thankless, stressful responsibility
for which they are paid very little, especially given the demands of
their jobs. Nonetheless, they continue to labor in the most difficult
of environments for Montana's citizens.
But the best way to protect our correctional professionals is to
recognize the need for a well-trained staff, for the commitment of
adequate resources to operate the institutions safely, and for
innovative management incentives that serve to reduce the opportunity
for prison violence.
After the 1991 riots in the Montana State Prison's maximum-security
unit, prison officials examined their protocols and made many positive
changes to heighten security and ensure safety. As a result of those
changes, there have been no homicides in the maximum security unit
since the riot. The drop in homicides is not because of the death
penalty - which existed in Montana both before and after 1991 and did
nothing to deter the riots - nor because there are fewer dangerous
people in the prison now than there once were. The decrease in
homicides is a result of better procedures and other positive changes
to the management of the prison.
The truth is that inmates serving sentences of life without the
possibility of parole are not the primary threat to corrections
officers' safety. Studies have shown that inmates serving life
sentences are actually very manageable because they do not want to
jeopardize the limited privileges they can earn in the system. A well-
managed prison with proper classification and staffing can create
incentives for lifers to behave while segregating and punishing those
who are a threat before violence ever occurs. Our prison system
already knows how to do this.
The reality is that the death penalty is not, and never has been, a
deterrent. Prison safety depends on proper staffing, equipment,
resources and training. Certainly the money spent on trying to put
someone to death for over 20 years could find better use in addressing
those practical needs of our correctional system.
John Connor practices law in Helena, Montana.
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When he signed New Mexico's newly passed House Bill 285 abolishing the death penalty, a measure introduced by Representative Gail Chasey and adopted through her dedicated efforts and those of many others, Governor Bill Richardson proved himself as a world-class statesperson. While rightly focusing in his statement on the needs and interests of New Mexicans seeking a more effective and reliable criminal justice system, he also touched on international human rights concerns voiced by a noted public figure who urged him to support the bill: former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Former President Carter, renowned for his focus on human rights both during his term and since in his career as a global peacemaker and activist, spoke very much in character when he wrote to Governor Richardson: "As you know, the United States is one of the few countries, along with nations such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba, which still carry out the death penalty despite the ongoing tragedy of wrongful conviction and gross racial and class-based disparities that make impossible the fair implementation of this ultimate punishment."
In his statement upon signing the bill, Governor Richardson remarked, "From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That's not something to be proud of."
Both President Carter's letter in support of the bill and Governor Richardson's courageous act of signing it reflect a sober and realistic approach to peacekeeping, domestic or international, fortified by much hard experience. Both have weathered their share of crises, with Richardson distinguishing himself as a diplomat and hostage negotiation in various parts of the world. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, he found himself in the unenviable position of having his own country investigated by a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions. The rest of the world, however, was amazed that the United States could retain the death penalty while seeking to exercise leadership in the human rights arena.
At a time of when we are part of a growing world community and when stark fiscal choices have to be made, our higher moral aspirations and the cost-effectiveness of crime control pull in the same direction--the direction taken and illuminated for us all by former President Carter and Governor Richardson.
Each story was insightful and thought provoking in its own way. Aaron Owens, an enlivening character who fought his wrongful conviction from within by doing research in the Prison Law Library, recounted his story with a humor and wisdom that was both entertaining and inspiring. Judy Kerr told the audience about the murder of her brother, Robert James Kerr, and urged them to question the current system and capital punishment.
Another sad and thought provoking tale was told by Deldelp Medina, whose story was unusual in the fact she was related to both the murder victim and the murderer. Her cousin, who suffers from schizophrenia, murdered her Aunt. Although he is now getting the help he needs in a mental institution, when the crime was first committed the prosecutors were intent on sending him to death row. Her story was interesting as it high lighted one of the many problems with the death penalty; it is estimated that on death row, 5-10% of the inmates suffer from mental illness.
As amazing as these stories all were, the one that intrigued me the most, was Darryl Stallworth's account. Daryll Stallworth was a former prosecutor, whose opinion on the death penalty changed through his career. He has gone from asking jurors to choose the death penalty to asking members of the public to oppose it. Darryl recounted how it was hard for him at first to speak openly about opposing the death penalty, as he would be opposing a system which he had essentially grown up in and was a part of. But he then came to believe that if he wished to bring about change, he would have to begin with himself.
The reason Daryll Stallworth's account interested me the most was because his opinions and views were not ones he had had his whole life, they had been changed, and it is this change that the death penalty as a movement is seeking. I believe Judy Kerr put it best last night when she said, that she didn't want to talk to people who opposed the death penalty, she wanted to speak to those who were for it or who had no opinion either way, as they were the minds that needed to be changed. And Daryll Stallworth is the proof that this is possible.
Hearing his account, merely an hour after New Mexico signed legislation to abolish the death penalty, filled me with renewed hope that the battle for abolition of capital punishment is one that we are winning. Now is the time for change. Now is the time to end the death penalty.
THE DEATH penalty remains one of those select issues in our public conversation, along with guns and abortion, driven as much, if not more, by emotion than actual data.
Despite being a policy fraught with error, wasteful spending and unreliable convictions that prompted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to declare a moratorium, the death penalty continues to enjoy high public approval.
There have been a number of recent articles that examine the cost effectiveness of the death penalty. Tough economic times may be the only way to rid the culture of a policy that has America in lock-step with the famed "axis of evil."
Given the economics, with more states examining the viability of lifetime imprisonment in lieu of the death penalty, the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty hosted a forum in Berkeley this week on the death penalty, featuring three family members of murder victims, a former prosecutor and a person wrongfully convicted in Alameda County.
Alameda County is one of the most aggressive death-penalty counties in the state. Each death penalty trial costs county taxpayers more than $1.1 million more than a traditional murder trial - resources that could go to other county needs.
The participants, who come to this issue from very different perspectives agree on one thing - the death penalty does not work! Each panelist offered an insight on the flaws with the death penalty based on personal experiences.
It may feed the public's momentary thirst for revenge, but the death penalty is not a deterrent. It does not save lives and it adds unnecessary cost to state and local coffers.
Panelist Aaron Owens spent 10 years on death row wrongfully convicted of murder. Ironically, Owens was freed after the district attorney who prosecuted him finally concluded that he was innocent.
The Owens example makes the case against those arguments to do away with the death penalty appeal process as it currently stands. Proponents of capital punishment contend the process is too lengthy, cumbersome and expensive.
Recently, there have numerous columns and talk show topics focused on the appeal process for Richard Allen Davis, the convicted murderer of Polly Klaas, which finally began after he spent 13 years in prison.
While I understand the reaction to Davis, given the heinous nature of the crime, the death penalty is a policy implemented in the macro that justifies its existence in the micro. The emotion that is attached to Davis blinds us to the imperfection of the policy, as Owens bears witness.
The sluggish appeal process that many death penalty advocates abhor must be the price if California is to resist being totally consumed by publicly-funded barbarism. There can be no short cuts if the state wishes to continue to be in the revenge business.
But appeals are costly and every issue in these economic times must fall under the microscope of scrutiny for its cost effectiveness.
Invariably, whenever I write in opposition to the death penalty, I receive e-mails that chronicle isolated cases that individuals believe warrant capital punishment.
Again, the thirst for revenge blinds us to certain realities. Those who are poor, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, people of color as well as those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation comprise the majority of those who receive the death penalty.
Those who advocate for the death penalty seldom argue for the massive increase in resources required for the death penalty being considered equitable. Why not life in prison without parole? It's cheaper and Davis would never be freed.
The event held in Berkeley put a face on the death penalty. Victims who did not receive closure once it was implemented, prosecutors through their experience informs them of the futility of the policy and a potential death penalty victim who without a long appeal process would not be alive to tell his story.
But I suspect as long as it remains politically advantageous for candidates seeking elected office to support the death penalty and as long as it is administered the "nobodies" of our society we can afford to waste a few dollars, even in a tough economic climate, to feed our appetite for revenge.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and columnist for Bay Area News Group-East Bay. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave a message at 510-208-6417. To read more by Reverend Williams go to ByronSpeaks.com
On March 18, 2009, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed H.B. 285, which is a bi-partisan bill that replaces the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. New Mexico is the fifteenth state to abandon capital punishment and the second state to do so legislatively in the last two years. New Jersey's legislature passed a similar bill in December 2007. At least ten other states have considered similar measures this year citing the significant savings that could result from ending the death penalty: Montana, Nebraska, Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Kansas are among them. Earlier this year, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley called on his state's legislature to end the death penalty citing both financial and ethical concerns.
In June 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that California annually spends approximately $137.7 million dollars on the death penalty. By replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the Commission noted that the state could save in excess of $125 million per year. Just last month, the California State Legislature also doled out an additional $136 million for a new death row housing facility--for which the total project budget is expected to reach $400 million.
Governor Bill Richardson's office reported that it has heard from thousands of New Mexicans on the bill to repeal the death penalty over the last three days. On Tuesday evening, they reported that they had received 9413 calls, emails and walk-ins visits on the issue. Of those, the vast majority, 7169, supported repeal of the death penalty and 2244 were opposed. Many murder victims' families also testified in favor of ending the death penalty. "
It is time for the voters of California to realize that death penalty is draining our state and counties resources while providing no benefit to our communities. We should be using our scarce public safety resources on getting killers off our streets, not on a symbolic punishment. We have more than 25,000 unsolved murders in our state-this is a real threat to public safety," said Stefanie Faucher, Program Director of Death Penalty Focus.
Lance Lindsey, Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, added, "Governor Bill Richardson is a courageous and thoughtful leader who has recognized that the death penalty is an ineffective and costly response to violent crime. Permanent imprisonment is a severe and swift punishment that offers justice to victims' families and effectively protects society."
Our new President, Barack Obama, has jumped head first into working on the myriad difficult issues we are now facing and he’s already signed several executive orders to rectify some of the problems. One of the orders he signed was to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Center within one year, which made me scream “Go, Obama!!”
I've read a few articles and listened to a number of conservative radio shows that suggest people are very concerned about the order because terrorists might be released and threaten our national security again.
However, what these individuals fail to understand is that while many of the detainees are dangerous, some of them are completely innocent. As a result of this order, of course some innocent detainees may be released, but others that still pose a danger to society will be transferred to the “appropriate” place where they will be tried and receive proper due process. The problem is that the detainees’ human rights have been completely ignored and the proper due process has not taken place.
I've encountered similar fears and misinformation when discussing the death penalty. By advocating for the end of the death penalty, we are not advocating for the release of dangerous criminals. We support sentencing the worst of the worst to permanent imprisonment.
According to the press release from the office of the district attorney county of San Diego, over 1,200 homicide cases go unsolved every year in California alone. In short, suspects who are responsible for these murders are still at large. They may be living right next to you.
Unfortunately, our legal system spends millions of dollars on killing the condemned who are already incarcerated despite the fact that we can save $117 million every year by just abandoning this dysfunctional death penalty system.
Don't you think spending money on solving these cold cases/law enforcement/victims families would be more valuable and effective?
Killing prisoners does not make our society safer!
Today many people are struggling with the horrible financial crisis and crimes including homicides that are committed due to this desperate situation. Isn't it time to reconsider how to spend this exorbitant amount of money to make our society safer and healthier?
I feel that we are getting closer to ridding the world of the death penalty every day. I'm hoping that the death penalty will soon become a thing of the past, just like human rights abuses at Guantanamo and slavery.
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.