Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2014
Vera Crutcher's son was murdered in California. She remains opposed to the death penalty.
Last week, death penalty supporters officially launched a signature gathering effort for an initiative that would change death penalty procedures, which they claim would bring "reform" to the system. As we know, there is no way to fix California’s death penalty, and this initiative would only result in even more delays and increased expenses.
Instead, real reform, spearheaded by families of murder victims in a number of States most recently including Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013), means replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), essentially death in prison. Replacing the death penalty will provide justice for murder victims and their families, as opposed to the deadly mirage of "reform" offered by the proposed initiative.
As Kathleen Garcia, a victim advocate and expert on traumatic grief who has herself lost a niece to murder, declared: "It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve." She was a central figure in New Jersey's replacement of that broken system with life in prison without parole in 2007, the true reform supported in our state by groups such as California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Sadly, this proposed initiative would continue all the harms which victim-advocates such as Garcia have cautioned against, inflicting needless psychological trauma and diverting funds from programs which can provide survivors of murder victims with counselling, therapy, restitution, and community assistance on the road to healing.
First, this initiative offers a false promise to family members of murder victims. The initiative is so filled with legal and constitutional problems and would inevitably result in lengthy litigation. While the proponents claim this would allow families of murder victims to receive closure, it is clear that it simply will continue, or worsen, the agonizing journey through the trial, appeals, and clemency process to the possible destination of an actual execution. Even in States like Texas known for their busy death chambers, executions are becoming rarer, as society finds LWOP a more manageable and reliable alternative. As Garcia says, observing that getting through the criminal justice system is a challenge for murder survivors: "When the death penalty is added to the process, the survivor's connection to the system becomes a long-term and often multidecade nightmare that almost never ends in the promised result."
In contrast, replacing the death penalty with LWOP means swift, certain, and reliable justice. The murderer is sentenced to death in prison, and the victim's family can say "case closed." While these families often point out that there is no such thing as "closure" or "getting over" the violent death of a loved one, the LWOP solution spares them years of reopened wounds and relived trauma through the long legal quest for an execution, the "nightmare" of which Garcia speaks.
Secondly, California's death penalty system -- with or without the proposed changes -- diverts funds from Victims' Services programs that can improve the quality of life for family members of murder victims. In California, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, a punishment which can be carried out immediately even while any appeals are in progress, would save an estimated $117-$184 million dollars per year.
As Garcia states: "Every dollar we spend on a punishment that harms survivors is one we are taking away from the services that can address the emergent and long-term needs of all victims."
Third, the spectacle of the death penalty both during years of complex legal maneuverings and in the fateful days leading up to a possible execution, shifts the public's attention from the murder victim and his or her family and community to the murderer. Rather than honoring the victims and their lives, citizens are distracted by a new and overwhelming drama: "Shall we kill the killer?"
Perversely, some serial killers and other Death Row prisoners relish this publicity; but it does untold harm to family members of both murder victims and Death Row prisoners. Society deserves a sober and loving reflection to honor victims and their families, not a Roman circus giving murderers the limelight in a gripping new drama of life or death.
Fourth, California's death penalty, "reformed" or otherwise, sends the invidious message that some victims and families are more important or worthwhile than others, with the execution of the perpetrator as the gold standard of "justice for the victim," and a sentence of "only" LWOP or death in prison as a kind of consolation prize at best. Which murderers live or die can be influenced by such factors as race, class, and accidents of geography.
True reform, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, sends the message that all victims and families are valued, and that the worst killers will predictably and uniformly be sentenced to live, work, make restitution, and die in prison, a sentence which does not require a new act of killing.
Finally, family members of murder victims who must cope with the agony of an unsolved case where the killer may still be at large want justice for their loved ones, and for other victims and families relegated to "cold case" files. The futile initiative would not serve their needs.
As Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims, whose brother was murdered, states: "The death penalty won't bring my brother back or help to apprehend his murderer. We need to start investing in programs that will actually improve public safety and get more killers off the streets."
In short, this misguided and deeply flawed initiative cannot make a success of a broken death penalty system which has proved to be an epic FAIL for families of murder victims and for the community at large. Donald McCartin, for many years a self-described "hanging judge" in Orange County who sentenced nine defendants to death, sums up the reality of the death penalty as "a waste of time and money.... The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims' families."
Family members of murder victims such as Garcia and Kerr bid us march on to the true reform we almost achieved in 2012: the proposed initiative offers a mirage which is not an oasis of justice but a deeper legal and fiscal quagmire we must avoid.
On Thursday, January 16, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using new, untested drugs. An expert anesthesiologist warned that one of the drugs was inappropriate to use in an execution, stating that it could cause the inmate to be conscious while suffering through the sensation that he was suffocating.
The doctors concerns were well-founded. Dennis McGuire appeared to have struggled and gasped for air for more than 10 minutes. Some witnesses say that the struggle endured even longer, for nearly 19 minutes.
This experimental execution that went horribly wrong is just the latest in a string of desperate and unacceptable attempts by states to prop up a failing death penalty system.
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University specializing in execution methods, said, "[States] are out of control, taking ever greater risks with increasingly inappropriate drugs."
It is clearer than ever that this scramble to find new ways to execute people is heading down a dangerous path.
Death Penalty Focus is joining Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling on Governor Kasich to issue an immediate moratorium on all executions. This horrifying execution, which witnesses say resulted in “agony and terror”, should be a wakeup call to state leaders.
“Ring out the old year and ring in the new” has extra resonance for me and my family right now, because the end of 2013 marks the start of a new journey. You see, last month I accepted the position of executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and on January 2, I start working in that vital role. I am leaving my human rights work at the United Nations and moving across the continent to California to face a new human rights challenge: the abolition of the death penalty.
I took on this challenge because I believe that the global elimination of the death penalty is just a few steps away, and that the first of those steps must be the abolition of capital punishment in California.
California leads the country in the number of people it sentences to death, with 24 new death sentences in 2013, bringing the total to 747 death row inmates in California alone. It may not seem like one state could make such a difference to the world, but I assure you it can. My work at the United Nations taught me that countries across the globe look to the United States to lead the way. And currently many countries use us as an excuse to defend the practice of deliberately killing their own citizens. I’ve heard it directly from a diplomat’s smiling mouth: “You criticize us for executions, even though America executes far more than us.” Together, we can change that. We can make the US a positive example for abolishing the death penalty. Click here to make a gift to Death Penalty Focus.
Death Penalty Focus has led us to the verge of ending capital punishment in California. Proposition 34 showed how close we are to getting a majority to vote to stop the state from ever killing another citizen. Indeed, polls show that enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning across the nation—support for capital punishment is now at its lowest level since 1972. But taking those final steps to abolition will require more work, more outreach, and more funding.
As the new executive director, I personally need your help. We must take the next steps together. We must do even more, and give even more, to take California in the right direction. It can lead the nation in sentencing its citizens to die, or it can lead the world in ending the death penalty.
We are saddened to learn about the death of Delbert Tibbs, a death row exoneree who dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.
Delbert was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and spent three years in prison, two on death row, before the Florida Supreme Court reversed the case. The original prosecutor, James S. Long, declared that the case had been “tainted from the beginning and the
investigators knew it.”
Delbert later moved to Chicago where he wrote poetry and continued his advocacy against the death penalty as the Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence.
Delbert Tibbs inspired people wherever he went, and will continue doing so even after his passing.Thank you for sharing your story with the world.
Over the years, DPF has worked to build a broad coalition of people from diverse backgrounds to join the fight against the death penalty. This coalition includes law enforcement officials, exonerees, murder victims’ family members, and people of faith. Learn more about our programs, and watch the video below!
Reggie Griffin discusses his experience being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.
On October 25, Reginald Griffin became the 143rd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973.
Griffin was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction rested on testimony from two jailhouse informants, who received benefits for their testimony. Prosecutors also withheld key evidence from Griffin's defense regarding a screwdriver that had been found on another inmate.
Griffins sentence was eventually changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and in 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Griffin's conviction, saying that the conviction was not "worthy of confidence." He was released, but prosecutors immediately filed charges to retry him, citing DNA evidence that allegedly tied him to the murder.
However, that DNA evidence didn't "pan out", according to prosecutors, and the state dismissed the charges.
It took 30 years to clear his name, but Griffin is glad to put the nightmare behind him. "To not have this over my head is more than what words can describe.Now that it's over, I'm
going to try to put my life back together, to go on with my life," he told The Associated Press.
Griffin is the first death row exoneration of 2013, and the 4th person exonerated from Missouri. To find out more about death row exonerations, visit DPIC's Innocence Database.
Congratulations to Reggie, and to the team of lawyers who worked tirelessly to clear his name.
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/10/30/4587051/ex-death-row-inmate-exonerated.html#storylink=cpy
Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate in California, has been granted a hearing regarding human rights violations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which seeks to protect human rights and basic freedoms in the Americas. Cooper has been on death row in California for 29 years, and has always maintained his innocence.
Attorneys for Cooper stated that they are “hopeful
that the Commission will issue a decision directing that the United
States provide Mr. Cooper with a new trial in order to allow him to
prove once and for all that he is innocent of these crimes.”
Death Penalty Focus has submitted a letter to the Commission in support of Kevin Cooper, which expresses our concern about the facts of this case, as well as our stance that the death penalty is never an appropriate sentence.
To: Honorable Commissioners of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights
From: Mike Farrell, Chair of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus
Virginia Van Zandt, Interim Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus
Re: Kevin Cooper v. United States, Case No. 12.831
Dear Members of the Court,
We write representing the Board of Directors, staff and thousands of members/supporters of Death Penalty Focus, one of the premier abolition organizations in the United States, in support of your attention to the plight of Kevin Cooper.
While we do not pretend to be qualified to judge the legal questions surrounding Kevin Cooper’s case, our 25 years of work against the death penalty in California and across the nation have made us painfully aware of the glaring faults inherent in this inappropriate, ineffective system and the grievous errors committed in its implementation. California houses our nation’s, and possibly the world’s, largest death row, currently encaging 742 condemned men and women.
Because of a judicially imposed moratorium, there has not been an execution in California in 7 years. This moratorium, however, can end at any moment and, regardless of the state’s ability to carry out executions, the condemned struggle to subsist under conditions which a recent report by our Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) says “clearly violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” This opinion, regarding both death row conditions and the death penalty itself, is shared by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
As is the case with every killing state in the U.S., capital punishment’s use in California is primarily limited to racial minorities and those too poor to be able to afford an adequate defense. California has barely escaped killing six innocent men* who were tried, convicted, sentenced to death and spent years fearfully awaiting the executioner before finally being exonerated and freed.
But we did execute Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a long-time veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, described (New York University Law Journal) as “the first person in the Nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an un-refuted decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be unconstitutional.”
While unable to argue the legal aspects of Kevin Cooper’s defense, we are keenly aware of the compelling 100-page dissent in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in his case in which Judge William A. Fletcher stated that Mr. Cooper was “probably” innocent. Four other judges joined his opinion, stating that “California may be about to execute an innocent man.”
We commend your careful attention to this troubling case.
Chair, Board of Directors
Virginia Van Zandt
Interim Executive Director
* California death row exonerees: Troy Lee Jones, Lee Perry Farmer, Jerry Bigelow, Patrick Croy, Shujaa Graham, Oscar Lee Morris
Herman Wallace endured 42 years of solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, decades of injustice, a battle with liver cancer so that he could finally say, "I am free." On Tuesday, October 1st Wallace was released and three days later he died in his sleep, due to his terminal disease. This case has received much spotlight because of the racism surrounding the conviction and the cruel treatment of being placed in SHU for decades. Herman Wallace is not a lone example of the injustices of the criminal system as he accounts for one of the Angola 3. The 'Angola 3,' Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert Woodfox, were charged with the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, in 1972. At the time of the murder, the 'Angola 3' were completing a sentence for armed robbery and played key roles in the Black Panther movement within the prison. Since their accusation of killing the guard, The Angola 3, were removed from general prison population and continue to claim their innocence.
Their trial was far from fair and decades of appeals have not produced enough change. As of today, October 4, Wallace has passed away with a looming re-indictment, King is free after having his conviction overturned in 2001, and Woodfox continues to live in solitary confinement. Justice will prevail when the court overturns all convictions and the 'Angola 3' receive an apology. But then, we should ask ourselves, is this really justice?
Herman, Your spirit will continue to inspire people to fight for a more humane and just world.
Tonight, Texas executed its 500th person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
It is the first state to reach this unseemly milestone, with current Governor Rick Perry playing a major part, having presided over 260 executions (also a record). It’s a shocking number, and though it is certainly is a grim milestone, what does Texas executing its 500th person actually say about the current state of the death penalty in the United States?
The truth is: not much.
The death penalty has been in decline since the late-1990s, when executions reached a fever pitch.
In the past six years, six states have replaced their death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which brings the number of death penalty-free states to 18. Of those 32 states that still have a death penalty on the books, only six have executed anyone this year.
Since life in prison without the possibility of parole became an alternative, juries have also been less inclined to sentence people to death. Even in Texas, the rate at which people are being sentenced to death is falling dramatically.
The current state of the death penalty is not reflected by this astronomical number. It is reflected in the downward trends in executions and new death sentences. It is reflected in the growing number of states that have replaced the death penalty. It is reflected in the shrinking number of states that are actually executing people.
Texas’ 500th execution is sobering, but the movement to replace the death penalty is only speeding up. The death penalty is prohibitively expensive, it’s taking away resources from programs that actually improve public safety, and we’re sentencing innocent people to die.
The death penalty is on the path toward demise, and Death Penalty Focus is committed to seeing this through to the end. Tonight was a grim reminder that our work is not yet done, but each year, we come closer to achieving our goal of ending the death penalty in the United States.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In celebration of this anniversary, the book will be re-released tomorrow, June 18th!
This book, recounting Sister Helen’s experience and bond with death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, helped bring more attention to the death penalty. Sister Helen created a much needed discussion about the death penalty, and though much progress has been made since the book was first released twenty years ago, she continues to work tirelessly to put an end to Capital Punishment once and for all.
This book has opened the eyes of the thousands of readers, and will continue to bring awareness to the death penalty issue in the years to come. Who knows? Perhaps for the 40th anniversary of Dead Man Walking, we will be celebrating the end of the death penalty in the U.S.!
They are supported by a broad coalition of charity partners of which we're excited to be a part and the project is totally interactive, which means you can have a hand in asking the questions and giving your feedback on the films as they're released.
In order to make this project happen, One for Ten needs support and funding. Watch what their project is all about, and if you want to see more, consider contributing to their campaign.
You can support this project by LIKING them on Facebook, FOLLOWING them on Twitter and SHARING their campaign with your networks.
We know that California's death penalty is broken. This new infographic by the California Innocence Project breaks down why - cost, wrongful convictions, and racial injustice. While California didn't vote to end the death penalty this time, the conversation must continue and more people must learn about these staggering statistics.
“The death penalty in California survived by a narrow vote on November 6, but around the country the signs are clear that capital punishment is slowly on the way out,” writes Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in his article “The Slow Demise of the Death Penalty.”
“Although California's recent vote means the death penalty will remain, the 47% of voters who favored replacing it indicates many Californians have had a change of heart regarding capital punishment. By contrast, the initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1978 garnered the support of 71% of voters.”
It's crunch time! We are now counting the days until November 6, when Californians will have a chance to vote YES on Proposition 34 to replace the state’s death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.
Death Penalty Focus has been a critical part of this effort, and now we're reaching out to ask our community for support.
The campaign is seeking volunteers to fill each of the following important roles:
Phone Banking: Help reach 100,000 voters by calling through a targeted list. Yes on 34 staff will train and prepare you to have these critical one-on-one conversations. You can join one of many phone bank locations or you can call from the comfort of your home.
Door-to-Door Canvassing: Join Democrats and other Prop 34 allies as they go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, passing out literature and discussing the important issues and candidates on this years ballot in order to ensure that our supporters go to the polls and vote!
Street Outreach: Meet up with fellow volunteers in your area at one of the many community festivals and events happening the Friday before the election. As a group, you will pass out flyers and answer questions about the initiative to passersby. The Monday and Tuesday before the election, Yes on 34 volunteers will be passing out flyers at busy transit locations.
Office Help: Help Yes on 34 prepare materials for Get Out The Vote by cutting flyers, packaging materials, and making volunteer recruitment phone calls.
Please sign up to volunteer via the Yes on 34 site here.
Thank you for your help - on November 6, we will make history!
It is often said that the death penalty is needed to give closure to the families who have lost their loved ones. But what if you find that the death penalty does not give you closure, relief, or justice?
In a series of videos, our CCV members explain why they have chosen to support alternatives to the death penalty. Please take a moment and watch!
Posted by Mary Kay Raftery, guest blogger on June 6th, 2012
My oldest son, Paul Raftery, was murdered on December 8, 2006 in Helena, Montana by two young men looking for drug money. Paul had no money in his wallet.
Prior to Paul’s murder, I had been involved with California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. Sometimes, people would tell me that I would feel differently about my views on the death penalty if my child was murdered. After I received the call that Paul had been killed, I stopped to think about my opinion. It hadn’t changed.
I don't understand the concept of closure. After all, putting someone to death, in my case those two murderers, will never bring my sorely missed son back. The two murderers received sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 55 years, essentially a life sentence. I felt justice had been served.
I’d had the chance to talk to Paul about my activities with the California People of Faith. That’s when he quietly told me he, too, opposed the death penalty. I was surprised, but very gratified that he shared my beliefs having served 12 years as a law enforcement officer.
In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for SAFE California, a ballot initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This measure will save Californians over $1 billion in the next five years and create a one-time fund of $100 million to help local police investigate and solve the 46% of unsolved murders across the state.
My hope is that no mother is forced to endure the loss of a child to violent crime. That is why I believe so strongly in using our resources to prevent crime and keep our streets safe. The death penalty costs Californians $184 million a year more than the alternative but equally harsh punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole. That money would be better spent hiring more police officers to help protect our communities.
I also believe that we need to be providing for the victims of these horrible acts. SAFE California means that victims will not be dragged through decades of appeals. Inmates will be locked up behind bars forever, where they will work and pay money toward restitution and victim compensation. They will lose the special privileges that death row provides them, including their own cell. And the tremendous savings will help free up money to support victim services like counseling and medical treatment.
It has now been five years since the young men who murdered our son were sentenced and we received justice. To honor Paul, I am expressing my support for the SAFE California Campaign. I hope that others will see that it is time we start using limited resources to address the real issues behind violent crime, and to help the victims that are left behind.
This Monday, I will honor Dr. King’s passionate commitment to justice by volunteering to gather the signatures that will help us end the death penalty in California.
This upcoming weekend, January 14-16, will be a “Weekend of Action” where you can join us in this effort. Volunteers will be joined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the California NAACP, and civil rights leaders throughout the state as we come together in support of the SAFE California Campaign. The SAFE California Campaign has less than two months to gather the remainder of signatures required to qualify for the November 2012 ballot, and volunteers are needed to help reach our goal.
The SAFE California campaign is sponsored by a broad coalition of justice organizations, including Death Penalty Focus, who are all joined in the commitment to replace the death penalty to protect the innocent, save our very limited state resources, and improve safety in our communities. SAFE is working hard to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” ballot initiative in time for the November 2012 election.
I am proud to say that Death Penalty Focus is one of the organizations leading this effort. For over 20 years, we have worked to get to this point, and with your help, we can make history in California this November.
We also take the time this coming weekend to honor all victims of senseless violence. Coretta Scott King declared, “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.” As Coretta Scott King knew, in order to create a future with less crime, we must end this risky and costly punishment.
Now is the time to step forward and join together in this campaign to end the death penalty in California. As a member of Death Penalty Focus, I hope you will join the thousands of volunteers statewide who are ready to commemorate Dr. King’s leadership by joining this historic movement over MLK weekend.
2011 has been a year of tremendous achievements, heartbreaking losses and,
at last, real hope for change in California.
In March, Illinois followed New York, New Jersey and New Mexico and abolished
the death penalty. Two months later, we at Death Penalty Focus were
thrilled to honor Illinois Governor Pat Quinn at our Annual Awards Dinner.
Governor Quinn, who had long supported the death penalty, spent two months
deliberating on his decision. At our event he spoke eloquently about his
change of heart. "If the system can't be guaranteed 100% error-free, then
we shouldn't have the system," Quinn said. "It cannot stand."
April brought the incredible Jeanne Woodford to Death Penalty Focus
as our new Executive Director. For those of you who have not yet had the
pleasure of meeting Jeanne, please hear me when I say that she is our secret
weapon for ending the death penalty in California - and beyond. As the
warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne experienced the pain of overseeing
four executions. After leaving San Quentin, she was appointed to head the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Today, the more
people Jeanne has the opportunity to meet and talk with, the more support we
gain for ending the death penalty. It’s almost that simple. Put Jeanne in front
of a group of death penalty supporters and before long their support begins to
evaporate. We are thrilled to have her on board.
I am also thrilled that, last week, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon halted
executions in his state. In a simple but uncompromising statement, he echoed
the growing distaste for capital punishment being heard in many of our courts,
our legislatures, churches, and homes. "I am convinced,” he wrote,
“we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of
crime and their families and reflects Oregon values. I refuse to be a
part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not
allow further executions while I am Governor." Bravo Governor
September brought the heartbreaking execution of Troy Davis. Yet, even on that
most awful day, Mr. Davis himself understood that his death would galvanize
support for ending this barbaric practice. On his last day he said,
"There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty
is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save
every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this
unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country…Never stop
fighting for justice and we will win!"
I wholeheartedly agree with Troy Davis. We will win. In fact, next
November California voters have the chance to replace the death penalty with
life without parole.
Here at Death Penalty Focus, we know what it takes to convince people to
end the death penalty. DPF excels at empowering exonorees, crime victims’
families, and law enforcement professionals to be effective spokespersons for
alternatives to the death penalty. We know from focus groups that these voices
are the most effective in changing hearts and minds.
Posted by Margo Schulter on November 3rd, 2011 November 3, 2011
A story that has stuck with me over the decades comes from a school civics text. A criminal came into the town of Milwaukee and killed a man. He was arrested in the morning, tried in the afternoon, and that evening was already serving his life sentence in the State Penitentiary. Sadder but wiser, he expressed admiration for Milwaukee as a place which stood up for justice.
This brand of swift and decisive "frontier justice" in homicide cases is a topic of stories not only in Wisconsin, which abolished the death penalty in 1853, but also in Michigan, famed as the first English-speaking jurisdiction to abolish it for murder in 1846 (the death penalty for treason technically remained on the books until 1963). Society's message was clear: take a human life through premeditated murder, and you'll spend the rest of your natural life in prison.
While we may be unable in 21st-century California literally to achieve same-day justice in homicide cases, the SAFE California Initiative will provide the same kind of swift, certain, and nonlethal justice that the old stories from places such as Michigan and Wisconsin celebrate. And by comparison to the decades-long ordeal often inflicted by our broken death penalty system on families of murder victims and condemned prisoners alike as well as society at large, the progress of a life without parole case from arrest to trial to permanent imprisonment of the murderer may seem almost as fast as in those stories of a century or more ago.
One feature of the initiative may recall another phrase of old: "life at hard labor." Under the SAFE California Act, prisoners sentenced to life without parole will be required to perform labor and make restitution to the Victims' Services fund. Not only will they live and die in prison, but they will be held accountable both to the families of their victims, and to society at large as the victim of every assault on the sanctity of human life.
It would be naive, of course, to think that society can devise any punishment that will deter all murders. All too often, for example, we hear of mass shootings where the offender commits suicide with the final shot, or has a history of suicide attempts; so the death penalty hardly seems to dissuade them. However, if there is an effective deterrent to make some potential killers think twice, it might be life and death in prison plus labor and restitution to society. This is especially true if word gets out on the street that the law is really being enforced.
The SAFE California Act makes a commitment to help get that word out by directing $100 million over the period 2012-2016 to a SAFE California Fund to improve the rates at which homicide and rape cases are solved and the perpetrators arrested and punished. Getting killers off the streets not only directly prevents more homicides or other violent crimes by these same perpetrators, but indeed sends a message of deterrence to others.
Currently, with 46% of homicides and 56% of rapes going unsolved, that message is not so clear. What we need to do is to establish very clearly, in practice as well as theory, that killing one's victim in the course of a robbery or sexual assault -- in order to prevent them from making an identification or testifying, for example -- is a recipe for swift detection and a sentence of life, labor, and death in prison.
The SAFE California Fund is a first giant step at making swift and certain punishment a reality. As the Attorney General's summary of the initiative very cautiously estimates, abolishing our broken death penalty system will produce savings "in the high tens of millions of dollars annually," with the Fund thus representing only a relatively small portion of these savings. A recent study by federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell suggests savings of $184 million a year, greater than the total amount of the Fund over the full four-year period! The Legislature, of course, will be free to apply more of these savings to local law enforcement and also to crime prevention strategies such as mental health interventions, while retaining needed flexibility at a time of budgetary crisis.
While swift and certain justice is always an ideal to be striven for, the old stories remind us that society can respond to the tragedy of murder in a clear, decisive, and nonlethal way. The SAFE California Act is an invitation to clear the decks of a failed death penalty policy, roll up our sleeves, and give our police the support that they need as we move together toward a safer and saner future.
We reported to you recently that we are working hard now for the SAFE
California initiative to replace California's death penalty with life without the possibility of parole in 2012. When we suceed in California, it will be big news all over
the world, particularly in our large international abolition movement.
In 1988, when DPF was founded, only 35 nations worldwide had abolished the
death penalty completely, and another 18 had abolished it for ordinary crimes.
Today, 139 countries, most of the nations on earth, have abolished the death
penalty in law or in practice. The US, sadly, is in the very bad company
of China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen as one of the top five executing nations,
but we are working every day to be a strong part of the international trend
away from capital punishment.
Death Penalty Focus is in the leadership of this international
abolition movement, as a member of the Steering Committee of the World
Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Every year, on October 10th, World
Day Against the Death Penalty, the World Coalition's 125 member organizations
in 35 countries, participate in an international program of education and activism
against the death penalty.
This year, the 9th World Day Against the Death Penalty is
focusing on The Inhumanity
of the Death Penalty. We have launched a Petition drive in support of the
United Nations resolution calling for a worldwide end to the use of the death
penalty. This resolution will be voted on in the General Assembly of the UN
in December of 2012.
We hope you will join DPF in the leadership of US participation in this international
movement toward abolition by signing the 2011
International Petition Against the Death Penalty. This movement is growing
and gaining momentum, both in the US and all over the world, and we are very
excited to be a part of it.