After years of writing about the death penalty in California, I’m convinced that we in the media are part of the reason why the issue is so distorted.
Death penalty cases are the worst of the worst – unspeakable crimes with hideous details.
Some of these details from cases I’ve covered are burned in my brain, but I can’t fully share them in this column because they are too gruesome for a family newspaper.
There was a case in Yuba City in the mid-1990s where a serial predator murdered an innocent little boy whose funeral I covered. There were things that animal did to the boy’s body, while the child was still alive, that I wish I hadn’t learned. But I had to omit the worst details of the case when I wrote about this issue in November 2012, when a statewide ballot measure unsuccessfully sought to repeal California’s death penalty.
We’re talking about evil and criminals who cannot be rehabilitated or saved. We’re talking about victims and families shattered by the details of what happened to their loved ones, while the rest of us debate the abstracts of the death penalty from a safe distance.
I understand why The Sacramento Bee couldn’t publish the details of the Yuba City murder, just as it doesn’t publish profanity and pornography.
But by sanitizing these events, we in the media distort them. Our intentions are good, but we distort them nonetheless.
Perhaps if the public had a greater understanding of death penalty cases, there would be more public pressure to fix a system in which hundreds of men languish on California’s death row.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that California’s death penalty procedures were unconstitutional because the system is arbitrary and convicts are forced to live in prison for years with a death sentence on their heads.
The ruling set off a one-sided discussion ruled by people who want the death penalty abolished in California because it is so flawed. Yes, those whose legal manipulations make the death penalty system flawed want it abolished because it’s flawed.
But there is another side to this argument – reforming the death penalty so it stops being arbitrary and inefficient.
How about reforming the appeals process and putting a stop to frivolous legal delays?
A Sacramento-based group of victims rights and law enforcement groups called Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings hope to do just that by putting a death penalty reform measure on the ballot in 2016.
“Our (ballot measure) will address almost all the concerns the (federal) judge brought up,” said Chris Orrock, a consultant for Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings.
It’s what we need in the death penalty debate – a real discussion about dealing with the most unspeakable crimes in California.