September 16, 2012

Responses from experts: Should death penalty be scrapped?

Essays by Kathi McShane, Kent Scheidegger, Ron Briggs and Rod Pacheco

YES: Jesus taught us to forgive, not to exact vengeance

By Kathi McShane, Special to The Bee
Of all people, Christians ought to appreciate the danger and tragedy of executing someone who might have been wrongly convicted and condemned. After all, we are the followers of an innocent victim of another nation's system of capital punishment.

In my years leading churches and now training graduate students who will themselves lead churches, I have come to think that the hardest – and the truest – lessons of faith are those that challenge the ways we react instinctively. The natural reaction to being hit is to hit back, to exact revenge. The power of a religious and moral system in our lives and in society is to challenge those patterns that we think of as reasonable and expected human behavior.

The point of much of Jesus' teaching was to challenge the judgments people felt most sure about. "Remember 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'?" he asked. "I know that rule too, but I'm saying something different."

Don't resist someone who intends you evil. Love your enemies. Forgive – over and over again.

These are hard, counterintuitive teachings. We could argue about whether these lessons are realistic in today's world. But is there any reason to think that Jesus would have supported the death penalty? If we look carefully at his life, there's nothing to suggest that humans are charged with exercising life-or-death judgment over one another's lives.

There's no question that the responsibility of a civil society includes dealing with dangerous criminals in a way that keeps them from hurting others. But judging whether a person has forfeited his right to life sounds like the ultimate moral skepticism: We'd like to think that God will distribute justice ultimately, but just in case that doesn't happen, we're going to make sure people get what they deserve now.

The question is: What kind of world do we want to live in? One where an act of violence prompts more violence, where we are caught in a continuous cycle of vengeance and retribution?

I want to live in a world in which we are all pro-life, where we value every life. I want to live in a state where we are the last ones to give up on the possibility of hope and redemption; where the resources we have to spend on our criminal justice system are put toward education and the things that offer renewed humanity. No doubt there will be people who cannot or will not take advantage of the possibility of starting over, but let that be their choice, not ours.

Kathi McShane, an attorney, is vice president for Institutional Advancement at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She was formerly senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Sacramento.

NO: Capital punishment needs to be mended, not ended

By Kent Scheidegger, Special to The Bee
How should society deal with a monster who kidnaps an 8-year-old boy, rapes and tortures him for hours, and then kills him? Is life in prison really sufficient punishment for that crime?

The courts abolished capital punishment, temporarily, once before. As a result, we have Charles Manson grinning at us from his prison cell, networking with his fan base on his smuggled cellphone and living out his life four decades after he should have been executed. Do we really want to do this again with Robert Rhoades, Richard Ramirez, Randy Kraft, Charles Ng, or the hundreds of other serial killers, child killers, torturers, rapists and murderers on death row?

California's death penalty is fixable, and the needed fixes will save money, not cost money. The opponents of the death penalty have, so far, succeeded in obstructing enforcement through the courts and blocking the needed reforms in the Legislature, but the obstruction is coming to an end.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court finally cracked down on the lower federal courts' evasion of the reforms enacted by Congress, and those courts have begun dismissing cases that should have been dismissed years ago. Last month, the California Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, finally cracked down on the abusive practice of intentionally gumming up the system with phone-book-sized briefs filled with frivolous arguments.

The years of holding up the death penalty with litigation over the lethal injection method will soon end as well. A newer method has been established and has gone forward without delay in every state that has adopted it.

The cost argument made by the proponents is a mirage. For the 729 inmates on death row, all of the trial costs and much of the appeals costs have already been incurred. As the reforms are implemented and appeals are resolved in a few years rather than decades, the cost of appeals will drop and the cost of death row incarceration will drop. On the other hand, reduction of the existing sentences to life with absolutely no possibility of parole, if we really mean it, means incurring the escalating cost of prison health care for aging inmates. Additional incarceration and health care costs for murderers who should have been executed will likely be in the range of $2 million each.

California should not give up on justice. Mend it; don't end it.

Kent Scheidegger is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

YES: For victims, human costs of this legal beast are too high

By Ron Briggs, Special to The Bee
In 1978 I campaigned alongside my dad, state Sen. John V. Briggs, who was the proponent for Proposition 7, the Briggs Death Penalty Initiative that voters approved in November 1978. We believed our death penalty would deter crime, promote safety and, through swift application, deliver fiscal savings.

More than 30 years later I am in my second term as a county supervisor in El Dorado County where I have firsthand experiences with the effects of our death penalty. In 2007 a personal friend, who was a Superior Court judge, asked me for help with a witness of a brutal murder, kidnap and rape retrial in his courtroom. I cannot describe how profound of an impact meeting this survivor, this fragile mother of six, had on me. Our death penalty system tore her out of her home 26 years later and forced her to testify, face to face, of the horrors of that day, again.

And, again an El Dorado County jury convicted the murderer. And, again, taxpayers footed another $1 million for the trial. Today, I'm told that same murderer has two appeals pending, and it'll be around 2024 when his 1981 conviction will complete the appeals process. An astounding 43 years.

I believe justice shouldn't be administered by cost alone. But, cost is a factor of justice. Cost in monetary terms is simple enough as taxpayers foot the bill. Cost in the human terms isn't as easily quantifiable, nor is it personal for most of us.

In 1978 we thought we were protecting people, not creating a system coddling murderers in a single cell with 24-hour security, access to TV, a law library and daily visitation. While victims and their families live their lives unknowing if tomorrow will bring another appeal.

The death penalty has become a legal beast consuming victims' families and survivors, while eating up billions in taxpayers' money. In 1978 there were about six men on death row. Today there are 729 with death sentences. Only 13 executions have been administered in the past 34 years. The death penalty cost to taxpayers is an eye-popping $4 billion, or $187 million annually.

Life without parole would allow one appeal, barring an innocence claim; does away with death row, forcing murderers to serve their sentence in a prison's general population; and in my opinion, throws away the key, giving taxpayers a break. It would deliver justice through certainty to victims and/or survivors by eliminating the endless decades-long appeal process.

Ron Briggs is a supervisor in El Dorado County.

NO: We must act based on one of our seminal values: Justice

By Rod Pacheco, Special to The Bee
When Teofilo Medina entered the Riverside courtroom for his verdict he looked like Satan dressed in an orange jumpsuit, chained around his ankles, hands and waist. It was a chilling moment due to his appearance but also because he had casually murdered four young men in separate robberies. While in prison for more than 20 years, Medina attacked other inmates and guards. One guard said he had never seen another man possessed with such rage and violence.

Those like Medina who face the death penalty are the ultimate level of criminal. They are like the monsters we see on the movie screen, but real. One thing that scared me about the ones I encountered was that before their arrests they lived among us. It is hard for me to explain to others about the danger of these monsters when some perceive it as theoretical.

Some people say the cost of the death penalty is too high, yet we spend countless amounts of money on education, social services and national defense. When we start measuring justice by monetary standards our society is doomed, having misplaced its values. Police, prosecutors and prisons are not businesses that we should expect to turn a profit, they are a cost we expend to ensure that we are safe from those who prey upon us. It is an expression of one of our most seminal values – justice. If justice is to be weighed, we should use our values, not our wallets.

Others say that because prosecutors have different experiences and opinions on capital punishment, their death penalty decisions are disproportional. Consistency in treatment of a set of facts is not possible in any system. Lack of human consistency is not a valid argument for getting rid of the larger penalty.

Those opposed to the death penalty correctly state that executions have virtually stopped in California. This failure is a contrivance by those who have interminably delayed cases with one desired goal – abolition of the death penalty. Instead, if capital punishment is what we value as just, the system should be fixed so delays are prevented.

It has not gone without notice that those opposed on philosophical grounds have shunned discussion on this level. Their reluctance is recognition that most Californians see the death penalty as a just punishment for a few, like Teofilo Medina. Our failure to hold him accountable for taking the lives of four promising young men is a surreal justification for abolishing the very penalty he deserves.

Rod Pacheco, a former homicide prosecutor and Riverside County district attorney, is a partner with the international law firm of SNR Denton.

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