The Death Penalty Blog

Death Penalty and California

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

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.

Death Penalty Infographic - An Infographic from CA Innocence Project

Embedded from CA Innocence Project

Dear Governor Brown, We Are Turning the Tide!

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on August 11th, 2011

On August 11, 1977, a fateful day in your life as the Governor of
California and mine as a young activist, I was a guest at the
apartment of my friend Miriam Rothschild in San Francisco, the
very epitome of a devoted volunteer to her community. We knew
each other through our involvement in the Northern California
Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and together watched on
television the drama that was unfolding at the State Capitol.

The members of the Assembly were casting their votes as to
whether or not to override your principled and courageous veto of
Senate Bill 155, a bill which, among other things, restored
capital punishment in California. The moment of truth came when
an Assembly member from the Los Angeles area announced that he
could not disregard the evident wishes of his constituents, and
cast the vote providing a 2/3 majority to enact the bill over
your veto.

Today, happily, there is another bill making its way through the
legislature to uphold the ethical and human values which you so
courageously defended 34 years ago, and to do so with direct
participation by the voters themselves: Senate Bill 490,

This bill, if enacted and signed by you, will let the people of
California decide at the ballot box in 2012 whether or not to
impose permanent imprisonment or life without parole (LWOP)
as the uniform and consistent penalty for all capital offenses in
California. Under California law, LWOP prisoners are required to
perform labor and thus make restitution to the victims of crimes,
including family members of murder victims, so SB 490 actually
means "LWOP plus restitution," or LWOP+R for short.

How can we hope to abolish the death penalty in California at the
ballot box, after a list of defeats with which we are both
intimately familiar? For example, Proposition 17 in 1972 amended
our State Constitution to overturn a landmark decision of the
California Supreme Court holding capital punishment to be a
"cruel or unusual punishment."

In 1978, urged to go beyond the Legislature's "weak-kneed death
penalty law" passed over your veto the previous year, voters
passed Proposition 7, vastly expanding the range of "special
circumstances" murders subject to death or LWOP.

And in 1986, your appointee Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and
two of her colleagues were denied confirmation by the voters
after a highly politicized and often acrimonious campaign largely
focused on the Court's reluctance to affirm death sentences.

Given this history, the very idea of "winning at the ballot box"
seems to call for a serious sanity check. During the 25 years
since the calamitous judicial reconfirmation election of 1986,
three trends have been percolating beneath the surface of public
opinion which now give us the momentum to turn the tide.

First, as early as 1989, Professor Craig Haney at University of
California Santa Cruz found through a scientific survey of
eligible California voters that although 79% expressed "support"
for the death penalty, 67% actually preferred the alternative of
LWOP plus labor and restitution (LWOP+R), with only 26% still
preferring the death penalty when this choice was offered. A
follow-up survey in 2009 by Professor Haney and associates showed
very similar results, with 66% "support" for the death penalty
when no alternative was offered, but again only 26% when the
alternative choice was LWOP+R.

The same trend was revealed in a poll just this April by David
Binder Research, in which 63% of Californians surveyed favored a
proposal to convert the sentences of all current Death Row
prisoners -- around 715 -- to LWOP+R. Majorities of Democrats,
Republicans, and Independents supported this measure as a way of
saving a billion dollars every five or six years at this time of
budgetary crisis in our State.

The second trend which has been percolating beneath the surface
for more than two decades is a recognition of the full cost of
the death penalty, fiscal and human, and the devastating
opportunity costs our futile machinery of legal death inflicts on
other law enforcement measures which can effectively reduce crime
and punish its perpetrators more swiftly and consistently.

As early as March 1988, only a year and half after Chief Justice
Rose Bird was forced by voters to leave the Court, Stephen
Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee documented how California could
save $90 million each year by replacing the death penalty with

At that time, Magagnini estimated that at an extra cost of $90
million a year, and assuming the historical rate of about six
executions each year, taxpayers would be paying about $15 million
per execution. Two decades later, to borrow Mahatma Gandhi's memorable
phrase, we can say this estimate was rather a "Himalayan
miscalculation" -- in the low direction!

Since 1977, California has had 13 executions at a cost placed by
federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School
Professor Paula Mitchell at $4 billion. That amounts to about
$300 million dollars per execution, or 20 times what seemed to
Magagnini and others a reasonable estimate in 1988. A report by
question of costs, "And today, with California's urgent budget crisis in law
enforcement and victims' services as well as other vital areas,
we simply can't afford this kind of extravagance!"

Getting more cops and homicide investigators on the beat, solving
more "cold case" homicides and improving on the clearance rates
for murder now at only around 50% in many of our counties,
keeping services for victims adequately funded, and "connecting
the dots" to prevent some of these homicides and other violent
crimes -- these are agendas the public can understand. And SB 490
gives them the opportunity to rethink priorities in a situation
the voters didn't have before them in 1972, 1978, or 1986.

Finally, there's a third trend that's been quietly percolating
over these eventful decades: a recognition that LWOP actually
means what it says in California! Over 3700 California prisoners
have received this sentence, with only a handful released because
of the one "escape clause" we should want to keep: later it had
been discovered that they were actually innocent of the offenses
for which they had been convicted. LWOP, like the death penalty,
spells permanent incarceration and death in prison -- but allows
room for correcting the rare but not unknown miscarriage of

Today, 34 years after the fateful passage of SB 155 which you
courageously sought to avert, we are turning the tide: SB 490
points the way to victory through the ballot box. On this day, as
victory is within our sight, we might remember the words of the
late Justice Stanley Mosk, a great California jurist and tireless
public servant under you and your father:

     "The day will come when all mankind will deem killing to be
      immoral, whether committed by one individual or many
      individuals organized into a state."

To these words we may add that many Californians ready to support
the death penalty in the abstract may nevertheless prefer, as
polls have shown for some 20 years, a more swift, reliable, and
cost-effective system of justice based on LWOP+R. Please join us
in reaching out to these citizens, who can become our partners in
victory through SB 490 and the democratic choice it offers.


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Governor Brown Puts Kibosh on New Death Row

Posted by Zac Stone, Guest Blogger on May 2nd, 2011

Those involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty in California might have heard that the state could save a billion dollars over the next five years by halting the archaic practice. Last Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown took a step toward making that a reality by cancelling plans to build a shiny new death row at San Quentin State Prison that would have housed an absurd 1,152 inmates, as opposed to the current 700+, and stood to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a statement about his decision, Gov. Brown said, "At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals."

"California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us."

While condemned inmates deserve not to live in squalor, improvements can be made to the existing death row infrastructure without splurging in an economic downturn on facilities aimed ultimately at taking life. Money spent on education and law enforcement will go further toward lowering crime and keeping more people out of the cycle of violence that surrounds death row inmates and their families.

The state had budgeted $356 million for the new death row facilities at San Quentin, of which $20 million has already been spent since 2003 on designing and planning. State auditors released projections in 2008 that put the cost closer to $1.6 billion over 20 years. Realistically, cost projections on big construction projects are almost always lower than their ultimate expense to taxpayers.

Still, construction does not make up the bulk of the expenses related to the death penalty, even really expensive construction projects. The ACLU has estimated (pdf) that each year, keeping death-sentenced inmates separate from the general prison population costs California an extra $90,000 per inmate, more than $60 million annually. Another roughly $60 million is spent each year on capital prosecution and defense.

Many of these costs cannot be reduced without running the risk of imprisoning or executing an innocent person. All of these costs could be reduced to a pittance in comparison if the death penalty were replaced with life without parole, and in fact, new polling data (pdf) by David Binder Research shows Californians are strongly in support of just that - 63 percent of Californians are in favor of the governor converting all death sentences to life without the chance of parole, with a mere 28 percent opposed to the idea. Such a move would free up funds for public education and law enforcement without releasing a single inmate, and it even has the benefit of being supported by solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and particularly independent voters.

Having taken this important initial step of nixing the new death row, Gov. Brown must continue to save the state's precious resources by commuting the sentences of California's more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole. With Californians and others ever more willing to survive without the outdated punishment, it's a no-brainer that will save money and human lives.

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Dear Jerry Brown, Please Cut the Death Penalty

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on April 28th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

In the opening months of his first term, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he argued that:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." (April 16, 1953)

While President Eisenhower was speaking to the problem of excessive national and global defense spending, his words are still relevant today as California faces the challenge of balancing public safety against the need to provide all of its citizens with essential services. The "theft" we face today, however, does not occur at the barrel of a gun, but instead can be found in the fiscal and moral disaster of a futile, extravagantly expensive, and socially divisive quagmire which is our broken death penalty system.

Today, a strong, smart, and effective law enforcement and criminal justice system is more incumbent than ever. Such a system must not only provide our police and corrections officers with the support they deserve and require, but must also integrate itself with our social service and mental health systems in order to "connect the dots," thereby preventing, as well as solving and punishing, violent crimes.

When such preventative measures tragically fail, society has an obligation to crime victims and their families. We must do everything in our power to ensure that families are not trapped in an unresponsive legal system, and are instead provided a helping hand on the long road to healing.

Sadly, building such a system is close to impossible as long as we are committed to capital punishment.

Each year, according to a 2008 study by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, our State spends at least $137 million on the death penalty. By replacing this punishment with permanent imprisonment, and scrapping the $400 million dollar plans for a "new and improved" Death Row, we could save $1 billion over the next five years. In doing so, we would have also replaced an arbitrarily applied and incredibly inefficient punishment with a swift, certain, and uniform penalty for our most heinous murders.

Californians as diverse as self-styled "hanging judge" Donald A. McCartin of the Superior Court of Orange County, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti of Los Angeles County, and former Warden Jeanne Woodford of San Quentin Prison have all learned from their experience in seeking, imposing, and actually carrying out death sentences that permanent imprisonment is a better and more fiscally viable choice.

And families of murder victims, like Judy Kerr and the California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, are joining their voices to the mounting chorus for a more balanced and dignified system of justice, sharing their own unique experiences and wisdom obtained at an unimaginable price. We would do well to pay attention to their perspective as it is in their name that we carry out executions.

While only voters can change the law, as Governor, you hold the awesome and indeed sacred power of clemency, which you can use to not only stop the "theft" of resources from Californian families who desperately need them, but also to exercise the craft of leadership by bringing us together in the common pursuit of justice for victims of crime and for society at large.

As your decades of public service have undoubtedly taught you, the death penalty has served as a wedge issue in California politics, dividing voters and communities, and distracting us from more constructive and cost-effective alternatives.

Fortunately, more and more Californians -- indeed a powerful majority, to judge by one recent scientific survey -- are asking for swift, severe, and thrifty alternatives to a system where over 700 men and women are confined for decades on Death Row, when they could be serving sentences of permanent imprisonment at far less cost to society, and indeed be making restitution for their crimes.

While this 2009 survey showed that 66% of Californians polled were in favor of "the death penalty" in the abstract, when offered the option of life imprisonment without parole plus restitution to the families of the victims, only 26% continued to support capital punishment.

Since California's 1977 and 1978 capital murder statutes were enacted, the law has provided a mandatory penalty of permanent imprisonment for any death eligible crime. It is noteworthy that while only 13 prisoners have been executed under these statutes, more than 700 are now on Death Row. Over 3000 prisoners have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Of these thousands of prisoners, only a handful have been released - and this was only after they were shown to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated!

The fact that such cases are rare reflects the skill and determination of our peace officers, prosecutors, jurors and judges, who are committed to convicting the guilty while taking care always to protect and acquit the innocent. The fact that mistakes do happen, however, is a sobering reminder that we are only human, and that permanent imprisonment, unlike execution, allows room for us to repair miscarriages of justice when they are discovered.

As your father, Governor Pat Brown, discussed in his memoir Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor's Education on Death Row, there was sometimes an agonizing ethical conflict between doing what he felt was just in deciding the issue of life or death for a condemned prisoner, and doing what he felt was necessary to preserve his ability to effectively serve the people of California.

Today, however, it seems as though these two imperatives are more in line than in conflict. In the California of 2011, governing effectively means taking control of the budget, and husbanding resources to serve those "who are not fed" or "are not clothed." To do this, we must address the imperatives of excellence in education and preeminence in technological innovation.

At the same time, we need a system of law enforcement and justice which can protect our citizens and communities, and bring prompt and responsive justice for victims of crime and their families.

To meet these goals, the draining of our time and money into the bottomless sinkhole of a broken and unfixable death penalty system simply must be stopped, and these resources need to be redirected to proven and effective law enforcement efforts and victims' services which can stem the tide of criminal violence while bringing us all together in the quest for a more just, secure, and prosperous society.

At this hour of crisis, Californians need to find common ground. The policy of permanent imprisonment provides it: it means swift punishment for criminals who will die in prison, and timely resolution of criminal cases so that the families of murder victims can move on without having their wounds reopened by decades of appeals addressing the unique issues and enormities raised by capital punishment.

Polling suggests that permanent imprisonment plus restitution can command strong majority support, uniting supporters and opponents of the death penalty. When invited to consider the alternatives, citizens and voters want to be both tough and smart on crime.

And in today's budget crisis, we can afford nothing less.

While only the voters of California can complete the process of legal reform and streamlining through an initiative, you are in a position, with one telling stroke of your pen, to move over 700 prisoners from an exorbitantly expensive residence on Death Row to more thrifty accommodations where they will meet the same fate that they were likely to receive on the row, a natural death in prison.

And thus, without releasing a single prisoner, you may at once save Californians a billion dollars over the next five years, and lead us forward in the agenda of human dignity and social progress for which you and your family have stood over these many long decades of devoted and courageous public service.

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An Open Letter to Gov. Jerry Brown from the Former "Hanging Judge of Orange County"

Posted by Donald A. McCartin, Guest Blogger on March 30th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

Welcome back. I offer here a few thoughts for your consideration.

After you were gutsy enough to appoint me, a right-wing Republican, to the Superior Court of Orange County, I served there from 1978 to 1993, after which I sat on assignment on death cases throughout California. In all, I presided over more trials than I can possibly recount. Among those I do remember, however, were ten murder trials in which I sentenced the convicted men to die in our state's execution chamber. As a result, I became known as "the hanging judge of Orange County," an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.

The ten were deemed guilty of horrifying crimes by their peers, and in the jurors' view as well as mine they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, one has died of natural causes in prison and none of the others has been executed, a fact that stirs deep anger within me.

Let me explain:

I am angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that a decision I was put in the position to make, one that I then believed promised resolution for the family members of the victims of those crimes, has been made a mockery.

I have followed the development of legal thinking and understand why our nation's Supreme Court, in holding that "death is different," required that special care be taken to safeguard the rights of those accused of capital crimes, especially those sentenced to death. Such wisdom protects our society from returning to the barbarism of the past. And while I find it discomfiting and to a significant degree embarrassing that appellate courts have found fault with some of my statements, acts or decisions, I can live with the fact that their findings arise out of an attempt to ensure that the process has been scrupulously fair before such a sentence is carried out.

I can live with it and, apparently, so can the men I condemned. The first one, Rodney James Alcala, whom I sentenced to die over 30 years ago for kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, was, just last year, again sentenced to death for killing little Robin Samsoe and four other young women who, it has subsequently been determined, were his victims at around the same time.

I need not here go into the permutations of Mr. Alcala's legal journey. Behind bars since 1979, he has not harmed, nor can he harm, any other young women. That's instructive because harm has been done and that's what infuriates me. Robin Samsoe's mother has been re-victimized time and time again as the state of California has spent millions upon millions of dollars in a series of unsuccessful attempts to fulfill its promise that her daughter's murder can be resolved and she can go on with her life.

Had I known then what I know now I would have given Mr. Alcala and the others the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had I done that, Robin's mother Marianne would have been spared the pain of 30 years of misery, wondering if her daughter's murder would ever be finally resolved. She could have dealt then and there with the fact that her daughter's killer would be shut away, never again to see a day of freedom, and gone on to put her life together. Had I done that, the State of California would not have put her through the torture of hearing after hearing, trial after trial. Had I done that, the people of California would have been spared the hideous expense of hundreds of millions of their tax dollars that were squandered in this meaningless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of death.

It makes me angry, Governor Brown, to have been made a player in a system that is so inefficient, so ineffective, so expensive and so emotionally costly to those to whom it promises peace but delivers only pain.

I watch today as you wrestle with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear that you don't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been promised by prosecutors once the perpetrator has been killed by the state.

You and I know, Governor, that there is no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts with the promise that the state will end their pain by causing the death of another is a cruel lie.

So I agree that we should no longer play games, Governor Brown. You and I are both older now, so let's stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

I'm told you don't have the power to end the death penalty by yourself, but you can point the way. You can have a huge financial impact on California by following the lead of Governor Ryan of Illinois and commuting the sentences of all the men and women on California's death row - all 700-plus of them - to life without parole. And you can direct the millions you save to making some of our citizens' lives brighter and more promising.

Let's stop playing games, Governor. Let's stop lying to the people; let's stop being politicians and start behaving like the grownups we've become.

With Respect,

Donald A. McCartin,

Judge, Superior Court (Ret.), Orange County

Illinois Says No to Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on March 9th, 2011

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today which made his state the 16th to abolish its death penalty (Take action to thank him now).  The bipartisan bill, which passed the state legislature in January, commutes the sentences of Illinois’ 15 death row inmates to life without parole, and reallocates the funding previously slotted for capital defense to law enforcement training and increased restitution for victims’ families.  

Quinn’s decision is the culmination of years of public debate that has been raging since at least 2000 when then Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions.  For Governor Ryan, the state’s system looked increasingly broken, and the probability that innocents would be executed was too great to keep moving forward with capital punishment absent serious modifications. In the following eleven years, the state created two study commissions and attempted to implement multiple reforms to resolve these concerns, but found that such efforts were both ineffective and too costly.  Governor Quinn’s decision marks an awareness of the diminishing returns intrinsic to the already extremely expensive system, as attempts to make capital punishment ‘fair’ were always going to be more costly and less effective than abolition.  As Quinn put it, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”  He went on to note that in a world of limited resources, it was wiser policy to take “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system [and spend them] on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.”

Quinn did not make this decision lightly, as shown by the two-month wait between the bill’s passage and his signing it into law.  He carefully considered arguments from supporters and opponents, taking a particularly hard look at the feelings of the family members of murder victims.  In his statement, the Governor acknowledged the unimaginable heartache that accompanies losing a loved one and made clear that he understood and could not blame families for desiring retribution.  His decision to sign the bill, however, was motivated by numerous conversations with families who felt that the death penalty only prolonged their pain and suffering.  By ensuring that murderers are locked away for life, Illinois’ policy will help victims avoid years of painful hearings while also providing the state with the funding necessary to prevent similar crimes before they happen.

Illinois decision to abolish should be understood as part of a national trend away from capital punishment, as it is the fourth state in as many years to end its death penalty.  New Jersey and New York both removed all their prisoners from death row as of 2007, with New Mexico following suit two years later.  Today finds the fewest number of states’ practicing capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1978, and it appears as though the number could drop even lower as several other states are currently considering abolition with bills in various stages of debate in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.  

Governor Quinn’s decision should provide inspiration for death penalty opponents nation-wide, as his actions show that there is nothing inevitable about capital punishment.  As concerns over the cost and fairness of the death penalty rise, public opinion has swung increasingly against it, suggesting that a post-death penalty America may soon be a reality.  Illinois is not the first or last step in the process, but it is an important one nonetheless, as each victory adds momentum to the push for more effective alternatives to capital punishment.

The Expensive, Arbitrary and Inefficient State of the Death Penalty in California

Posted by Stefanie on February 11th, 2011

One of DPF's Board Members (aka "Lovechilde") is at it again. Check out his latest blog on the death penalty at He concludes:

 "Rather than perpetuating this expensive, arbitrary and inefficient state program, wouldn’t we be better off replacing the death penalty with life sentences, and focusing on crime prevention, crime solving and assistance to crime victims? Just do the math."

We think so.  Maybe that's why we like him so much.

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CA Governor “borrowing” $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of the new death row housing facility

Posted by Stefanie on August 11th, 2010

Well it is hard to believe but Governor Schwarzenegger has announced that he plans to “borrow” $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of the new death row housing facility. California has no budget, the Governor wants to furlough State workers, and the state is running a massive deficit, but apparently the Governor has decided the death penalty in more important. Go figure.

This is what Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblyman Jared Huffman had to say

Statement from Senator Mark Leno:

”While California is in the midst of a dire financial crisis, the Schwarzenegger Administration is pushing forward with the expansion of San Quentin’s death row, without first exploring any alternatives. I continue to oppose this deeply flawed project. The proposed construction and operating costs will exceed $1.6 billion over the next 11 years, and despite the cost and increased capacity, the new inmate complex would run out of space by 2014. The governor’s proposal to use General Fund dollars for this ill-conceived project at a time when he is decimating support for our children’s education and the sustenance of services for seniors and children makes no sense at all. The Schwarzenegger Administration should take the necessary steps to explore alternatives to the expansion of San Quentin before acting recklessly with taxpayer dollars and one of the California coast’s most beautiful and precious stretches of land.”

Statement from Assemblymember Jared Huffman:

“At a time when the state may be two weeks away from sending IOU’s and when the Governor is attempting to furlough 156,000 state workers citing our impending cash crisis, it is stunningly hypocritical that he is surreptitiously – and quite possibly illegally – borrowing $64 million from the state’s deteriorating General Fund in order to advance his favorite pet prison project: the $400 million “Cadillac Death Row” at San Quentin. It’s a project that has been stalled by the budget crisis, by the courts, and by the inability to sell bonds due to pending litigation and the uncertain legality of proceeding with construction. It’s also a project that the Legislative Analyst found to be so wildly expensive that they recommended scrapping it, and the State Auditor concluded that it would likely provide a very short-term solution for housing condemned inmates since the condemned inmate population would exceed its undersized capacity within three years of completion. If built, this would be the most expensive inmate housing ever built, at a cost of more than $500,000 per cell.

Read the full statements.

Now is the time to remind the Governor that California could save $1 billion in five years by replacing the death penalty with life without paroleWatch this video and then tell the Governor to "Cut This!"

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Of polls and leadership

Posted by Margo Schulter on July 20th, 2010

In a recent article, reporter Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle asks whether candidates running for statewide office, such as our former and perhaps next Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr., and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for Attorney General, may lose votes because of their opposition to the death penalty.

In fact, while California voters "support" the death penalty in the abstract, further questioning reveals that they actually prefer the alternative of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP), also known as permanent imprisonment, or better yet LWOP plus a provision for restitution by the prisoner to the victims' compensation fund (LWOP+R).

When offered a choice between death and LWOP, 55% of Californians polled in 2009 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Virginia preferred LWOP, and only 37% the death penalty, with 8% unsure. When LWOP+R was offered, only 26% still preferred the death penalty, while more than 66% preferred LWOP+R.

In California, LWOP, or permanent imprisonment, has actually been in place since 1977 for all persons convicted of capital crimes who are not sentenced to death. The categories of murder with "special circumstances" automatically subject to permanent
imprisonment were greatly expanded in 1978 by the Murder Penalty Initiative (Proposition 7).

Since 1977, over 3700 prisoners in Callfornia have been sentenced to LWOP, and only a handful have been released, those later found to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.  One hundred and thirty eight death row prisoners have been released due to wrongful conviction nationwide since 1972. Apart from these cases of exoneration, permanent imprisonment in our state means exactly what it says.  A small number of prisoners who committed their crimes before the 1977 and 1978 LWOP statutes were enacted, such as Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson, get periodic parole hearings under an earlier law. 

Further, restitution, the "R" part of LWOP+R, is already in good part the law in California. Ironically, however, opportunities to perform various forms of work and service whose proceeds can be devoted to crime victims and their families are now often sought by individuals serving LWOP sentences but denied to them due to our overcrowded facilities. Adequate program funding could make LWOP+R not only the ideal but the consistent reality in our state, a goal worthy of action through either the Legislature or a voter initiative.

As the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) showed in its report of 2008, replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment would save over $125 million a year. This money could be used both to strengthen prisoner
restitution programs, and to assist law enforcement at a time when in many of our counties only about 50% of murderers are caught, convicted, and imprisoned. Victim advocates stress the importance of reopening "cold cases" and getting killers off our
streets, thus promoting the public safety and doing some justice for forgotten murder victims and their families.

In short, conscientious and farsighted candidates for statewide office can and should exercise responsive and responsible leadership by fully considering the alternatives to the death penalty.

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Cut This: The Death Penalty Video

Posted by Stefanie on June 29th, 2010

Check out this amazing video!

We know that advocates and community members from across the state are fighting to ensure that the vital social services that make up the safety net for California's most vulnerable populations aren't slashed. We're here with a small piece of the solution. Need to cut something? Cut this: the death penalty.

Cut This: The Death Penalty from aclunc on Vimeo.

Share this video on Facebook and Twitter!

NH Supreme Court Justice on the Death Penalty

Posted by The Hon. Joseph P. Nadeau, Retired Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire on June 25th, 2010

It has been my good fortune to serve as a judge in New Hampshire for thirty-seven years. For thirteen of those years I was presiding justice of the Durham District Court. I served as a justice of the Superior Court for eighteen years, nine of which I spent as chief justice. And I sat on the Supreme Court for six years before retiring in December of 2005. I am proud of our judicial system and the effort of judges in all our courts to treat people fairly and equally, and to protect their individual rights.

While serving as a judge, I rarely expressed my opinion on capital punishment privately, and until now I never expressed my opinion publicly. Nor did I let my personal opinions influence my judicial decisions. In fact, in 1998 I presided over the capital murder case of Gordon Perry, and on every motion filed on his behalf challenging New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute, I ruled he had not established that the law violated our constitution.

Last week, I appeared before the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, whose members I commend for their willingness to undertake the important and challenging task assigned to them by the legislature . My purpose in speaking to the commission was not to talk about facts and statistics or trials and cases but to address the moral issue of death as punishment.

The way we have been dealing with the death penalty for years is to talk about enacting laws, adopting procedures, establishing practices and providing mechanisms, as if by creating an elaborate process we could somehow sanitize the death penalty and thereby ignore the moral issues that capital punishment presents. We cannot.

I appeared before the Commission to answer one straightforward but complex question: Do I believe the systematic killing of another human being by the state, in my name, is justified?

My answer to that question is, No.

During my tenure as a judge, I met many people with strong opinions about capital punishment.  Through most of that period, over two thirds of those polled in the United States regularly supported the death penalty. Some people I respect still do. So you would think that anyone looking for answers based upon public opinion or strongly held views should have an easy task.

What is the problem, then?  In the face of these odds, why do we continue to struggle with the acceptability of death as punishment?  I believe one reason we engage in this process is that no matter what some people say publicly about capital punishment, deep inside many are not as certain as they proclaim.

I believe another reason is that our thinking evolves, as people, technology, and societies progress. And what is acceptable at one time in our history may become unwelcome at another. If that is true then, we are encouraged to re-examine our core principles and to consider whether death continues to be an acceptable punishment in New Hampshire.

I have great respect for the offices of the Attorney General and the Public Defender and for the integrity and competence with which the attorneys in those offices handle homicide cases. The primary source of my continuing concern about the death penalty, however, is not New Hampshire’s limited capital murder experience but my own professional exposure to criminal justice issues.

There is no question that people who commit murder must be punished and should be removed from society. Life in prison without parole does both. It is interesting to note that two states, New Hampshire, which has not employed the death penalty since before Pearl Harbor, and North Dakota which does not condone capital punishment, did not need death to achieve the lowest murder rates in the nation every year of this century.

No legal system is perfect. Human beings make mistakes. That is one reason we accept the notion that occasionally the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted.  But I do not believe anyone accepts the notion that it is alright for a person to be wrongfully executed. So with the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence which cannot be reversed after it is imposed; and how can we continue to believe that it is morally acceptable for the state to take a human life?

My answer is, we cannot.

As most of us, I have never experienced the emotions felt by a murder victim’s loved ones, and I may never know for sure that I could not be persuaded by the desire for personal revenge to seek the death penalty for a person I knew killed someone I love. But for me, neither of these deficiencies makes opposition to the death penalty any less compelling.

I am not a death penalty expert.

I am not a spokesperson for the judiciary.

I am one New Hampshire citizen; one person, who believes it is not necessary to kill to show that killing is wrong.

So after thirty-seven years on the bench; after presiding over hundreds of jury trials; after sitting on numerous criminal cases; after listening to witnesses in scores of sentencing hearings; after considering information in thousands of probation reports; after imposing sentences upon countless convicted defendants; after entertaining the arguments of lawyers at every level of skill; after talking with a host of judges and corrections officials; and after continued personal reflection; this is what I believe about capital punishment:

  • The threat of its use is not a deterrent to the commission of a homicide, because those who kill do not consider the sentence before they act or do not expect to be caught, or both.
  • The threat of its use is not necessary to protect the people of New Hampshire for the same reason.
  • Its abolition does not dishonor those who serve in law enforcement because honor comes from personal pride and earned respect, not from the ability of the state to execute a human being.
  • Its abolition does not diminish the voice of murder victims because the right of all victims to be heard is intended to come at the time defendants are sentenced not at the time they are charged.
  • It provides no more justice than life in prison without parole because justice is not measured by the sentences we impose.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty costs the state much more in time and taxes than to prosecute and confine a person to prison for life.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty consumes inordinate resources of courts, prosecution, defense and law enforcement.
  • The decision whether to seek the death penalty is too easily swayed by public opinion, political pressure and media attention.
  • Its potential as a prosecutorial tool is outweighed by its capacity for misuse.
  • It is too easily subject to selective prosecution.
  • It is too likely to be imposed upon minorities and the poor.
  • It is too likely to depend upon the persuasiveness of lawyers.
  • Its imposition is too readily subject to the emotions of individual jurors.
  • Its imposition is too clearly dependent upon the composition of the particular jury empanelled for each case.
  • It inevitably leads to disparate sentences.
  • It creates the unacceptable risk that a person may be wrongfully executed.
  • It exalts rage over reason.
  • It diminishes our character as a people.
  • And in the end, I believe it serves just one purpose: vengeance.

It is for these reasons, and from a personal abhorrence of the premeditated execution of a human being by the state, that I appeared before the Commission to speak in favor of the abolition of the death penalty in New Hampshire.

Great Article - "Dems want to scrap death penalty in California"

Posted by Yoko on May 20th, 2010

This piece written by Bob Egelko is fantastic!  I'd like to share this link with you:

Posted in Blog, Cost | 1 comments

Why stretch and manipulate the truth?

Posted by Mike Farrell, DPF President on February 26th, 2010
Mike Farrell
Mike Farrell, President of Death Penalty Focus

Friday's Opinion piece by Gary Lieberstein and John Poyner in the San Jose Mercury News contains so many factual inaccuracies and politically inspired half-truths that I'm surprised they attached their names.

The tired-- and soundly demolished-- idea that state killing is a deterrent to violent crime only maintains currency because people who should know better -- and probably do -- continue to repeat it. They do so, it's clear, because all the other excuses for supporting capital punishment have been exposed as baseless.

Purporting to state "facts," Lieberstein and Poyner misstate and
twist them embarrassingly. Citing two infamous cases ¬ one based
solely on circumstantial evidence that made the retired "Hanging
Judge" of Orange County volunteer to testify for the defense ¬ they
claim that "Prosecutors have reserved the death penalty for the worst
crimes." They know better. California's death penalty law allows for
33 separately enumerated "special circumstances," not the 22 they
claim, and their range allows almost any murder to qualify for death
if an ambitious prosecutor feels it personally advantageous.

The statistics they cite, while not correct, indict their own thesis.
If the small percentage of death charges they claim are responsible
for the waste of $135 million in California's taxes every year ¬ as
reported by our state's Commission on the Fair Administration of
-- then over 95% of those convicted of murder serve out their
time in our state's prisons, clearly punished, but at a fraction of
the cost to the people.

They selectively cite one of two or three studies, all of which have
been soundly denounced by criminologists and statisticians, claiming
that killing people actually deters murders. It must be embarrassing,
even for these authors, to go through the gymnastics necessary to find
and reproduce a repudiated report while knowing that so many experts
have trashed it.

The assertion that great care is taken by their colleagues before
charging and prosecuting for death, while certainly the least one
might expect, seems to be contradicted by the fact that over 40% of
California's capital convictions are overturned on appeal. Their
claim that "a death verdict must be unanimous" conveniently ignores
the fact that no potential juror who opposes or has questions about
the appropriateness or efficacy of capital punishment is allowed to
sit on a capital case.

The statement that "There has never been a single finding of
prosecutorial abuse-- including an improper motive such as race, bias
or vindictiveness -- in the history of California's death penalty," is
astonishing -- and false. One need look only at the case of Thomas
, after whose execution Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals referred to him as "the first person in the
nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an unrefuted
decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be

As to the question of cost, the authors try valiantly to skirt the
issue by attempting to cast blame on an overwhelmed and under-funded
defense bar with a juicy quote from a pro-death organization. The
cost of death penalty politics, which is what their opinion piece
reeks of, is outrageous. Taxpayers in California, as is the case in
the 34 other death-dealing states in our country, are paying two to
three times as much for every death case as they do for one that seeks
life in prison without possibility of parole. This fact was one of
the determinants in the recent decisions of New Jersey and New Mexico
to take state killing off the books. The simple expedient of
eliminating the death penalty in California would save us $1 billion
in the next five years -- this in a state with a $20 billion budget

Lieberstein and Poyner, whose job gives them the power to decide which
penalty to seek while capital punishment remains on the books, should
put away empty, tired and false clichés like the threat of "increased
violence" and truly consider the needs of the people. Their defense
of such an outdated, ineffective, inefficient, racist and hugely
expensive process demeans those they claim to serve.

Even Texas is looking at the staggering cost of the death penalty

Posted by Stefanie on February 12th, 2010

Check out this MSNBC Nightly News segment on why even Texas is turning away from the death penalty for financial reasons.  Texas only had 9 new death sentences in 2009, compared to 29 in California. 

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It is ironic that California, with all of its budget woes, is still hanging on to a punishment that is more costly than the alternative of permanent imprisonment and is never carried out, while Texas has been more willing to look at other options. 

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Debating the death penalty's cost

Posted by Stefanie on February 5th, 2010

My new post on Care2 about the death penalty has been getting a lot of comments.  One of the most common sentiments expressed in the comments is that we should try to make the death penalty process cheaper and faster.  In response to this, I posted a comment myself about why this is simply not possible.

Stefanie F. says
Feb 2, 2010 10:26 AM

California would save more than $125 million per year by replacing the death penalty with the punishment permanent imprisonment. This is a severe, swift and certain punishment.

Death penalty cases are more expensive for a variety of reasons, including: there are two trials instead of one (guilt phase and sentencing), there are more lawyers and experts on both sides, there are constitutionally mandated appeals to make sure we don't execute an innocent person, and the housing is more expensive because they have to be single-celled if they are on death row, unlike other prisoners who share cells. Death row prisoners are usually not allowed to work to offset their housing.

There is no way to make the death penalty cheaper without risking the execution of many innocent people. It has been tried for the last 30 plus years and it has failed. It cannot be done.

By sentencing prisoners to permanent imprisonment, we are taking them out of the media spotlight, reducing harm to the victims' families who don't have to be dragged through years of appeals, and guaranteeing that these individuals will be severely punished and never be released to harm another person, all at a lower cost to the state.

The cost of the death penalty is one issue that is extremely complex and there is often quite a bit of confusion about how and why the death penalty costs more than locking up prisoners for life.  

Hopefully my note above sheds some light on the issue, but also check out our resource page on COST for more in depth info. 

Still not a believer? Post your questions and comments here.

Posted in Blog, Cost | no comments

Police Chiefs Reject Death Penalty as Useful Tool

Posted by Stefanie on October 20th, 2009

Just wanted to take a minute to share this press release from DPIC. 



For Immediate Release
October 20, 2009

New Report Shows States Can Save Hundreds of Millions by Abolishing the Death Penalty

National Poll of Police Chiefs Ranks the Death Penalty Last Among Crime-Fighting Priorities and Least Efficient Use of Taxpayers' Money

(Washington, D.C.) A report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center concludes that states are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty, draining state budgets during the economic crisis and diverting funds from more effective anti-violence programs. A nationwide poll of police chiefs conducted by RT Strategies, released with the report, found that they ranked the death penalty last among their priorities for crime-fighting, do not believe the death penalty deters murder, and rate it as the least efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars.

Read "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis."

"With many states spending millions to retain the death penalty, while seldom or never carrying out an execution, the death penalty is turning into a very expensive form of life without parole. At a time of budget shortfalls, the death penalty cannot be exempt from reevaluation alongside other wasteful government programs that no longer make sense," said Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center and the report's author.

"The death penalty is an irresponsible waste of the taxpayer's money at a time when we are laying off police officers, putting officers on furlough and cutting funds for crime labs, training and equipment. It makes no sense to pay an extra $125 million a year for a system that doesn't deter murder and is rarely carried out," said Ray Samuels, former police Chief of Newark, CA.

"The death penalty is a colossal waste of money that would be better spent putting more cops on the street. New Jersey threw away $250 million on the death penalty over 25 years with nothing to show for it. The death penalty isn't a deterrent whatsoever. New Jersey's murder rate has dropped since the state got rid of the death penalty. If other states abolished the death penalty, law enforcement wouldn't miss it and the cost savings could be used on more effective crime-fighting programs," said Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey. Abbott, a Republican, has served 29 years on the police force and was a member of the state commission that recommended the death penalty be abolished.

Key findings from the poll of police chiefs include:

  • The death penalty was ranked last when the police chiefs were asked to name one area as "most important for reducing violent crime," with only one percent listing it as the best way to reduce violence. The death penalty came in behind more police officers; reducing drug abuse; better economy and more jobs; longer prison sentences; and technological innovations such as improved laboratories and crime databases.
  • The police chiefs ranked the death penalty as the least efficient use of taxpayers' money. They rated expanded training and more equipment for police officers; hiring more police officers; community policing; more programs to control drug and alcohol abuse; and neighborhood watch programs as more efficient uses of taxpayers' dollars.
  • Almost 6 in 10 police chiefs (57%) agreed that the death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence. Although the police chiefs did not oppose the death penalty in principle, less than half (47%) would support it if a sentence of life without parole with mandatory restitution to the victim's family were available.

"We need to stop wasting money on a broken death penalty and instead spend our limited resources on solving more homicides. My brother's murder has remained unsolved for more than six years. 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," said Judy Kerr of Albany, California.

Californiaspends $137 million per year on the death penalty and has not had an execution in almost four years, even as the state pays its employees in IOUs and releases inmates early to address overcrowding and budget shortfalls. In Florida, where the courts have lost 10 percent of their funding, the state spends $51 million dollars per year on the death penalty or $24 million for each execution.

Executions themselves are not expensive; it is the pursuit of the death penalty that carries a high price tag. The higher costs of the death penalty process -- including the costs of higher security on death row -- are unavoidable and likely to increase in light of all the mistakes that have been made in capital cases.

In 2009, 11 state legislatures (Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Washington) considered abolition bills. New Mexico abolished the death penalty and Maryland narrowed its application with costs as an issue in both states.

Both houses of the Connecticut legislature voted to end the death penalty and one house of the Montana and Colorado legislatures (where cost savings were to be allocated to solving cold cases) passed abolition bills. The trend of states reexamining the death penalty in light of the economic crisis is expected to continue.

The poll of 500 randomly-selected police chiefs was conducted from October 29 to November 14, 2008 by RT Strategies with a margin of error of +/- 5.1 for all elites. The results of the poll were publicly released for the first time today.


The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue. The Center is widely quoted and consulted by all those concerned with the death penalty.

1015 18TH ST. NW, SUITE 704 WASHINGTON, DC 20036
PH: 202-289-2275 FX: 202-289-7336

Posted in Blog, Cost, Deterrence | no comments

Rally Calls for a People's Budget Fix in California: Includes Ending the Death Penalty

Posted by Stefanie on July 30th, 2009
Judy Kerr at the People's Budget Fix Rally

Today Californians gathered in Oakland to call for a People's Budget Fix consisting of several criminal justice reforms, including an end to the death penalty. Supporters included State Senator Leiland Yee, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, Oakland City Council Woman Rebecca Kaplan and dozens of organizational spokespersons. Supporter's had signs that read "Money for Education, Not Executions" and "The Death Penalty is Killing California's Budget."

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