There is no feeling good about advocating for the death penalty.
It's not cool or compassionate. It's not politically correct in California, where law and order arguments often ascribed to Republicans sound like loser arguments because Republicans make up less than 30 percent of an all-time high of 18.2 million registered voters.
Arguing for the death penalty flies in the face of reasonable-sounding declarations that a cash-strapped California can save a fortune by repealing a flawed state-sanctioned killing system that isn't executing anyone anyway. Let's spare our state bottom line and also spare the guy who kept a sweet boy alive while torturing him for a 10-hour period with the sharp end of a fishing knife methodically plunging 80 shallow stab wounds into his little body.
I covered that story in 1996, when 8-year-old Michael Lyons of Yuba City was murdered by an already-convicted violent sex offender named Robert Boyd Rhoades.
All these years later and I still can't get a single image out of my mind: Michael's little footprints on the interior windshield of Rhoades' truck. The poor little thing frantically pressed his feet against Rhoades' windshield as he undoubtedly wailed and begged for his life while that monster did what he did to him and exerted complete power over Michael in the nightmare of his final hours on this earth.
Michael's blood was found on Rhoades' knife, which was found in his truck along with Rhoades' underwear. Michael's throat was slashed on both sides of his neck. Michael was stabbed on both sides of his abdomen and above his left nipple. He had puncture wounds on his hip and buttocks and eight stab wounds under his chin. He had defensive wounds on his hands, which investigators believe showed that he was trying to stop Rhoades as Rhoades tortured him.
An autopsy showed Michael had internal injuries from a sexual assault that DNA evidence showed had been committed by Rhoades. Investigators believe Rhoades twisted the knife in Michael several times to inflict greater pain.
They found Michael lying face up in the brush on the west bank of the Feather River. He was naked from the waist down. His Batman T-shirt was pulled over his face.
When I sat in the pews at Michael's memorial service, in the back of a church with the other media, I could feel my insides trembling. The facts of the case and my imagination took me to a place where in that moment, in a house of worship, I felt I could hear Michael's screams in my ears.
If I can still hear those screams 16 years later, and I do, imagine how Michael's mother feels.
But you know what? The people behind Proposition 34 who are pushing for a "yes" vote to repeal California's death penalty don't want you to imagine it. They don't want to come within 10,000 miles of the specifics of cases like Michael's the worst of the worst crimes in our state.
Instead, they want to beguile you with sanitized arguments of $100 million cost savings to the state arguments that prey on our disgust for government waste.
The same lawyers who filed endless legal delays that ran up the tab to execute 13 death row prisoners since 1978 are the same ones who decry the cost.
To be fair, there are some very good people trying to repeal California's death penalty, including Donald Heller, the exceptional Sacramento lawyer who wrote California's death penalty statute in the first place. In the twilight of a distinguished career, Heller fears that his work as a young man could cause an innocent man to be put to death.
Modern DNA evidence has revealed the innocence of long-time death row prisoners in other states. How many of the 13 men executed in California have been found innocent by DNA evidence?
Do I believe it anymore when the California legislative analyst or others cite massive cost savings to issues as complex as repealing the death penalty?
Men like Rhoades, "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez and others can't simply be put in the general prison population. You're still going to have to segregate them and pay extra for their quarters, whether you call it death row or not. You're going to have to pay for their health care and other expenses.
The pro-Prop. 34 people sound like those who believe that if we just legalize all drugs, that evil, vicious drug dealers will be neutralized. It's a pie-in-the-sky argument. Evil lives whether we want to believe it or not.
If we just distill this unseemly business down to cost savings, we will always be the better for it, right?
Consider the victims of offenders currently on California's death row: 255 children; 43 police officers, 235 people raped and murdered and 90 tortured and murdered.
Fewer than 2 percent of murders in California become death penalty cases. Instead of repealing the death penalty, the worst of the worst criminals in California could be put to death much more quickly and cheaply if the state simply switched to a protocol where one drug is administered by lethal injection. But that change in protocols has been locked up in the courts.
I would never presume to tell you how to vote, but I'm going to vote no on Proposition 34 on Tuesday.
It's nothing to feel great about. But the death penalty is a needed tool to deal with monsters that don't deserve our mercy and who showed none while killing innocent people in the most unspeakable ways.