California, Crime, Death Penalty, Reader Polls, Sentencing Law

Debating the Death Penalty — From Both Sides Now

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison.

Debating the death penalty never gets old in the United States. Sometimes it cools off for a while, but if you wait long enough it always bubbles up again. These days it’s getting hot out here on the West Coast, where a ballot initiative aims to roll back the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. The initiative would replace Proposition 7, passed in 1978, which made California’s death penalty law “among the toughest and most far-reaching in the country.”

At the center of the debate are two men — one of them a former prosecutor from New York — who helped pass the death penalty bill in California 30 years ago. Now they have completely changed their tune. What prompted this change of heart?

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an exhaustive article about the two men and their are 180° shift:

The campaign [in favor of Prop 7] was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.

Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.

Some people might fault Briggs and Heller for flip-flopping on such a massive issue. I find it admirable. People have to act on the information they have. A person of integrity is able to accept being wrong. And then he will try to fix the situation:

“At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, cherries and (unsuccessfully, so far) black Périgord truffles.

“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”

Assuming you can’t be right all the time, I am pretty sure this is better than the alternatives: to continue plowing ahead obstinately, just so you don’t have to admit you’re wrong, or pandering to popular opinion and saying you believe whatever you think people want you to believe.

The Times article mentions in several places that advocates to repeal the death penalty in California focus on cost because it is the most “politically neutral” angle, as Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor, is quoted as saying. Briggs is more plainspoken:

Mr. Briggs said that argument “is going to capture a lot of Tea Partiers.” He continued: “Conservative Republicans should take a real hard look at it. I’m going to do my best to make sure they do. I have very good conservative credentials.”

It’s no secret how expensive the death penalty is:

A report last year found that California was spending $184 million a year on a cottage industry of lawyers, expert witnesses and supersecure prisons to deal with the death row population created by Proposition 7.

Still, cost isn’t the strongest argument. The death penalty should be abolished because it is racist, arbitrary, and particularly unfair to indigent defendants.

(Full disclosure: in college, I worked on this wrongful conviction case as part of the Medill Innocence Project.)

The Death Penalty Information Center has a wealth of information and statistics about this issue. The organization’s website is worth perusing. (As I write this, the New York Times story is at the top of the homepage.) But for starters, here are some numbers from the site:

  • Over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white.
  • In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black.
  • A study in California found that those who killed whites were over 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over 4 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed Latinos.
  • In cases with white defendants and black victims, 18 people have been executed. Where there has been a black defendant and a white victim, 253 people have been executed.

Capital cases also are unfair, because they often involve indigent defendants, who must use a public defender, and meanwhile the prosecutors are probably throwing their best men (or women) at the case. It is a stacked deck from the beginning.

More fundamentally, I’m not convinced that the system does not lead to innocent people being executed. Stories like those of Cameron Todd Willingham, or the death row prisoner whose appeal was rejected because the judge left work early, do not fill me with confidence. A system that is okay with wrongfully killing a few people for the sake of “the greater good” is unacceptable.

Regardless of my opinion, public opinion has steadfastly remained in favor of the death penalty, as noted in the Times article. We want to know what you guys think. So please debate in the comments, and take our reader poll:

Are you in favor of the death penalty?

  • No (75%, 681 Votes)
  • Yes (25%, 226 Votes)

Total Voters: 905

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Seeking an End to an Execution Law They Once Championed [New York Times]

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