Editorial: Time to end the fiction of California's death penalty

09/09/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:37 AM

For most of its 162 years as a state, California has had laws on the books authorizing the death penalty. And for nearly all of its 155 years as a newspaper, The Bee has lent its support to those laws and use of capital punishment to deter violence and punish those convicted of the most horrible of crimes.

That changes today. The death penalty in California has become an illusion, and we need to end the fiction – the sooner the better. The state's death penalty is an outdated, flawed and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

We take this position not because we sympathize with death row inmates or feel any sense of mercy toward them. They were convicted of committing heinous crimes, and barring any new evidence of their innocence or prosecutorial misconduct, they are deserving of the harshest of sentences.

Yet the reality is, no matter how you feel about these prisoners and the crimes they committed, they won't be executed in any expeditious way. They will likely die in prison, as have 84 death row inmates since the California Legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

California has 729 prisoners awaiting executions. It has carried out only 13 executions since 1992, when executions resumed after the reinstatement of the death penalty. Each year, juries add about 20 convicted murderers to death row at San Quentin, where they will add to financial and emotional burdens of a state that can't come to grips with the brutal truth.

Many families who lost loved ones to murderers have hoped that, following the sentencing process, they would have "closure" when the person or persons convicted of the crimes were executed. They are not getting closure. Instead, many are being tormented by the inflated expectations that California's judicial system has foisted on them.

Supporters of the death penalty say the system could be fixed to ensure that those sentenced to death were executed in a timely way. Perhaps. Perhaps California could change state law so the automatic review of death sentences was conducted by appeals court judges instead of the backlogged California Supreme Court. Perhaps the state could relax its standards for defense attorneys who defend death row inmates, while still complying with constitutional rights to a fair trial and appeal.

Yet we've heard this story so many times before – that we can "fix" a broken death penalty system. We heard it back in 1998, when the Legislature created the Habeas Corpus Resource Center to provide training and support for private attorneys who take on death penalty cases. The creation of the center was supposed to speed up legal review of death penalty appeals, but there is no evidence it has done so, despite a cost to California taxpayers of roughly $14 million annually.

California has already spent billions of dollars – one recent study pegged the figure at $4 billion – administering the death penalty since 1978, with little to show for it. If Californians want to speed up executions, they'd likely have to spend more money – on judges, court staff and defense attorneys to clear out the current backlog. In a state prepared to further cut public education, universities and public safety, do we really want to invest in accelerated executions? And what would we give up to be more like, say, Texas?

Unlike California, Texas is extremely efficient at carrying out the death penalty. Since 1982, the Lone Star State has executed 484 people – more than any other state, and more than four times the number of the number in the second state, Virginia.

Yet the execution efficiency of Texas has come at a cost, with few or no discernible benefits.

In its latest issue, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review makes a convincing case that Texas executed an innocent man in 1989. The executed man was Carlos DeLuna. The crime for which he was convicted and executed – fatally stabbing a convenience store clerk named Wanda Lopez with a buck knife during a robbery in Corpus Christi in 1983 – was more likely committed by a man named Carlos Hernandez, the Columbia law review concludes. Suspected but not charged, Hernandez later went on to commit a string of violent crimes, even as DeLuna proclaimed his innocence.

There are several cases of capital punishment being carried out on people later exonerated or suspected of being innocent in Illinois, Georgia and other states. In California, no one has yet demonstrated that an innocent person has been put to death, but there have been cases of persons convicted of murder and later cleared. Overall, our justice system is strong. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys take their jobs seriously. But in every system that involves human beings, there is the potential for human error.

Yes, California could change its laws and increase spending to carry out the death penalty more expeditiously. But we might do so at the risk of executing an innocent person – arguably the worst miscarriage of justice imaginable.

Starting in the 19th century, The Bee supported the death penalty, largely because it believed it would deter crime and prevent vigilante actions. Yet the research to date, in states that have frequently carried out executions, does not demonstrate that the death penalty has reduced the rate of murders and other heinous crimes. In Texas and California, for instance, homicide rates went up in the 1970s and 1980s, and have dropped since then, even though California has carried out few executions. Murder rates in Canada have increased and dropped in a similar pattern, even though Canada has carried out few executions since 1962.

In November, California voters will have a chance, through Proposition 34, to end the death penalty and replace it with a system of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. We urge you to vote for it. While capital punishment remains popular in California, polls suggest that a majority of those surveyed would accept ending the death penalty if it were replaced with a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Numerous longtime supporters of capital punishment have concluded our system can't be fixed and are supporting Proposition 34 because of it.

Like The Bee, they want California's justice system to be honest with its citizens and with the victims of crime. The current system is anything but.

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