Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Death Penalty's Death Rattle

Three Ex-California Governors

Popular support for the death penalty has fallen significantly.  Six states have repealed it over the last six years, leaving 32 states with the death penalty on their books.  In three other states, most recently in Washington, governors have imposed moratoriums on executions.  The rate of executions around the country is rapidly declining and imposition of death sentences is at a historic low.  Meanwhile ever more exonerations are showing deep flaws in the criminal justice system  Evolving standards of decency, indeed.

Meanwhile, those still clamoring for the death penalty are making gruesome spectacles of themselves.  With pharmaceutical companies balking at having their products used in executions, there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs formerly used for lethal injection -- drugs which were combined in a cocktail already fraught with serious problems.  This has led officials in various states to call for a return to the firing squad or gas chamber, or more commonly to act like junior chemists, cobbling together their own unregulated and untested lethal combinations.  Inevitably, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio with a new drug protocol that resulted in an agonizing fifteen minute ordeal in which McGuire gasped, choked  and struggled before dying.  While Ohio's governor ordered a stay for the next scheduled inmate to allow for further review of the state's procedures, other states are moving forward with their own experiments -- some of which are being halted by the courts and some aren't.

And then there is California, where three miserable former Governors just announced a proposed ballot initiative designed to speed up the death penalty appeals process.  Having apparently not done enough damage while they were in office, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, are backing a measure that will do nothing to address a hopelessly dysfunctional system that has cost taxpayers $4 billion, but is sure to add more delay, more costs, and more unreliability.

Morality aside, the arbitrariness of the death penalty is one of its more disturbing and intractable problems. Death sentences are not imposed on the so-called worst of the worst.  Far more significant factors in determining who gets a death sentence are the quality of the lawyers, the geographic location of the crime, and the race of the perpetrator and victim.   

This new initiative would exacerbate these problems. It would limit state appeals for death row inmates to five years where now it takes at least that long to appoint a qualified lawyer willing and able to take on such cases.  Another brilliant idea is to bypass the California Supreme Court which now hears all death penalty appeals directly and spread the cases to the lower courts of appeal around the state -- a state which already possess a gross geographical imbalance with virtually all death sentences coming from the south.

The thrust of the ballot measure would thus be to speed up and decentralize the process, limit avenues of review, and provide less skilled lawyers.  What could go wrong?

The fundamental problem, of course, is that California's death penalty system is broken beyond repair.  It is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, and unworkable.  With over 700 inmates on death row, it serves no useful purpose while diverting needed resources from true public safety programs.  An initiative to replace the death penalty with life without parole and thereby not only move towards a more just and sane justice system but save millions of dollars every year barely lost in November 2012.  A similar effort is sure to be successful in the near future.

In the meantime, like a macabre game of whack-a-mole, we need to beat down these destructive proposals when they appear, and refocus on meaningful criminal justice reforms including an end to the death penalty.  Click here to join the fight. 


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