Tuesday, September 27, 2011

California's Death Penalty System Is Broken Too

It is easy to be smug here in California, driving our hybrids, drinking our soy lattes, and condescendingly observing the executions in other states from afar.

Troy Davis is executed in Georgia despite serious doubts about his guilt.  Duane Buck comes within hours of execution in Texas despite a trial marred by racism.  Rick Perry boasts about presiding over more executions than any other governor while the GOP faithful cheer him on. 

But California's death penalty scheme suffers from the same problems that plague other states.  It is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, and unworkable.  It serves no useful purpose while diverting needed resources from true public safety programs.

We would like to believe that our justice system reserves the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” but with a population over 700, California has the largest death row in the country -- by far.  And more often the determining factor for death sentences is not the nature of the crime, but race, geography and/or the quality of trial counsel.  (See, e.g., Death Rattle For California, California's Dysfunctional Death Penalty, California's Unusually Cruel Death Penalty, State of Barbarism.)

Due to the tangle of state and federal legal procedures intended to speed up and circumscribe the appellate process, we too have experienced executions in the face of new evidence raising questions about guilt.  As an article in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle observed, even assuming California provides greater protections than other death-penalty states, no state "can guarantee the guilt of everyone it has condemned.  And none of California's due-process protections kept 42-year old Thomas Thompson from going to his death in 1998 for a murder he may not have committed."

And then there is the cost.  A study released in June by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon found that California's death penalty system is currently costing the state about $184 million per year.  Further, "since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions."

It is time to end the death penalty in California.  Recent polling shows Californians' strong support for life without the possibility of parole as the ultimate punishment instead of the death penalty.  These findings are in line with other polling data in California and nationwide.

One of my colleagues put it this way:
A lot have people have been moved to action by the Troy Davis execution. Close to home, Californians can do something: join the campaign to repeal the death penalty in California next year. California has its own unhealthy attachment to the death penalty. In 2009, LA County sentenced more people to death than the entire state of Texas, and the California Supreme Court has upheld almost every death sentence it has reviewed since [former Chief Justice] Rose Bird was ousted in the mid-1980s -- a higher affirmance rate than in many southern states. Our Death Row has topped 700 -- by far the largest in the country. Thankfully, executions here have been stopped by federal court review of the lethal injection process. Polling shows Californians would be willing to get rid of the death penalty on fiscal grounds, and now is the time to do it! 
The SAFE California campaign will start gathering signatures in October to put before the voters at the November 2012 election an initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole with work and restitution to victims through a victim compensation fund. The initiative also sets up the SAFE California fund which would set aside $30 million dollars every year, for three years, for local law enforcement.

To get involved, to donate or for more information, click here.

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