California Forum

California’s broken death penalty system can be fixed

The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution. Proposition 66 will speed up executions of death row inmates.
The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution. Proposition 66 will speed up executions of death row inmates. Associated Press file

In 1978, California enacted today’s California death penalty statute, the so-called Briggs Initiative. Now, Ron Briggs supports repealing the statute his “family wrote,” but his argument reads more like a surrender to death penalty abolitionists (“Death penalty is destructive to California”; Forum, July 10).

Instead of waving a white flag, Briggs should endorse Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, as a worthy successor to his family’s work. This initiative deals with the concerns Briggs raises about California’s death penalty system.

The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution. Otherwise, there could have been at least 15 sentences carried out during the past decade. It’s outrageous that victims’ families were forced to sue the state to draft these regulations. Proposition 66 will prevent biased and unsympathetic politicians and government bureaucrats from interfering with this process.

Proposition 66 also addresses concerns about how death row inmates occupy their time, requiring them to work or lose their privileges. If they owe restitution, it will come out of their wages.

The proposal makes other significant reforms as well. It addresses the backlog of cases at the state level by expanding the pool of qualified counsel for death row inmates. The initiative expedites review of prisoners’ complaints by returning their cases to the original trial court and prompts the Judicial Council to develop standards for the completion of appeals in state court in five years. Victims’ families will have the right to sue to force them to meet deadlines.

Briggs believes abolition will benefit victims’ survivors by closing cases and sparing them further “wounds.” That is offensive and presumptuous. In our experience, most survivors want “justice” for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open.

Briggs naively touts life without parole as a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. He forgets that the last murderer executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was sentenced to death for the murder of three people, which he planned while already serving a life sentence for murder. Life imprisonment was not enough to protect the public from Allen.

Moreover, victims’ families will always be haunted by the specter that an inmate sentenced to life without parole will suddenly ask the governor to reduce a sentence – as happened recently in the case of a Fresno murderer who waited 36 years and applied for clemency. As long as an inmate sentenced to life without parole lives, the governor could reduce the sentence and a murderer may be released on the streets.

Finally, Briggs is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect.

Briggs risks lives on the unproven idea that the death penalty does not deter murder and that life sentences will protect public safety. Rather than capitulating to abolitionist arguments, he should support his families’ legacy and endorse Proposition 66.

Anne Marie Schubert is the Sacramento County district attorney. Contact her at schubertannemarie@gmail.com.

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