Death penalty could go before California voters in November

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Judge LaDoris Cordell (at podium) and other SAFE California members present the signatures needed for a vote on ending execution
Steven T. Jones

It appears that California voters will get a chance to abolish the death penalty this November, and that supporters of the proposed ballot measure will use mostly fiscal and public safety arguments to pick away at the majority of state residents that polls have shown still support capital punishment.

The group SAFE (which stands for Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement) California this morning held press conferences in San Francisco and three other cities to announce that it is turning in more than 800,000 voter signatures (504,764 are needed) to qualify a measure that would make life in prison without the possibility of parole the maxiumum sentence in California. It would also spare the 720 inmates now on death row in San Quentin Prison, converting their sentences to life in prison.

“We make history today. This is the first time that voters in California will have the opportunity to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole,” LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, said at San Francisco City Hall.

She was flanked by Sups. Scott Wiener and Christina Olague and other supporters of the measure, as well to two visuals showing a county-by-county breakdown of the unsolved homicides and rapes in California. San Francisco ranks near the top in both categories, with 58 percent of murders (450) and 70 percent of reported rapes (1,236) going unsolved between 2000 and 2009.

“The money to catch these murderers and rapists is not there because it is on death row,” Cordell said, noting that the state wastes an estimated $184 million per year on capital punishment, a figure that represents the roughly $100,000 more per year it costs to house someone on death row versus in the normal prison population and the cost of lifetime legal representation and appeals to which condemned prisoners are entitled.

They argue that in a cash-strapped state, that money could be put to better use solving crimes and supplementing police budgets, with Wiener calling for state residents “to be rational in our approach to public safety and end the death penalty in California.”

Most studies on capital punishment have shown that it does not act as a crime deterrent and that it does not save money, so most arguments supporting it have been emotional ones offered by grieving families or law enforcement officials describing the heinous details of crimes. 

SAFE California seemed to be trying to preempt those appeals with speeches in San Francisco by three other supporters of the measure: Jeanne Woodford, the former San Quentin warden who now runs Death Penalty Focus; Obie Anthony, who was wrongfully accused of murder and exonerated last year after serving 17 years in prison; and Deldelp Medina, whose aunt was murdered by her cousin during a psychotic breakdown and faced capital punishment.

Woodford oversaw four executions at San Quentin and said she and other corrections workers were plagued by the questions of whether the person they were executing was innocent and whether state-sanctioned killing was really making the world safer: “No public employee should ever carry that burden, because I can tell you the system is flawed.”

Many studies have shown the criminal justice system is often biased against African Americans like Anthony. “At the age of 19, I was charged and faced with a murder I did not commit,” said Anthony, who was convicted based on eyewitness testimony of a pimp who later admitted that he was lying to get leniency in his own criminal charges, a deal with police that jurors never learned about.

“I’m living proof that terrible mistakes can happen and there is no perfect system,” Anthony said.

Medina told another story common to California’s flawed justice system, that of overzealous prosecutors seeking to appear tough, often for political reasons, being matched against overburdened public defenders who often lack the resources to properly defend poor people accused of serious crimes.

She noted how the death penalty gets “trotted out as a show pony in every election cycle” by politicians using the families of crime victims. But the reality is that vengeance isn’t a healthy emotion, and she said that capital punishment does little to heal a family’s pain: “The death penalty is an empty promise to the families of victims.”

Cordell said that capital punishment, which often takes 25 years to occur once all the appeals are exhausted, simply prolongs the survivors’ pain. “A quarter of a century is not justice for these families,” she said. And with the high cost of capital punishment exacerbating government funding shortfalls and inherent flaws in the court system, she said, “Justice in our criminal justice system is in grave peril.”