Almost 40 years ago, I wrote California’s current death penalty law. I attempted to write a constitutionally sound law that would be fair and equitable. As a Republican and as a former prosecutor, I believed and still believe that people who commit heinous crimes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. I thought that the death penalty was appropriate for willful and intentional murder.
Unfortunately, history and irrefutable data has shown that the death penalty is dysfunctional and costly, and may well have resulted in the execution of an innocent person.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, California has spent more than $5 billion and carried out just 13 executions. The current process costs more than $150 million a year. We haven’t carried out any executions in more than a decade; the average time between death sentences and executions is 25 years. In practice, the death penalty is nothing more than a hollow promise.
I support abolishing the death penalty, and will vote for Proposition 62 to replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole. I also oppose Proposition 66, which would not only cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but would do nothing to address the fundamental flaws in our death penalty system.
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Proponents of Proposition 66 promise voters that they can make the system cheaper and faster, but they are making a promise they simply can’t keep. Its poorly drafted provisions would generate additional costs for taxpayers; it’s a full-employment act for lawyers at state expense. Additionally, taking these proposed shortcuts would inevitably lead to an increased risk of executing an innocent person.
Death penalty cases are expensive because death is different – it’s final. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Constitution mandate multiple levels of appellate review as a safeguard against the execution of the innocent. Proposition 66 offers the false hope of simplifying a broken system by speeding up executions, but in reality, it would generate even more litigation and make the process slower. No one even dreamed in 1978 that 38 years later we would have spent more than $5 billion on executing 13 murderers.
By replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, we can ensure that the worst offenders will die in prison, and we can redirect the resources we are wasting on a failed system to other law enforcement priorities. We can avoid making the ultimate mistake – execution of an innocent.
In 1998, California wrongfully executed Tommy Thompson for a rape-murder that many legal experts, including myself, believe he did not commit. In 2005, the California Supreme Court changed the law, and that change would have resulted in overturning Thompson’s conviction, but there are no do-overs in executions. At least life without parole allows for correcting a mistake.
California owes a promise to its citizens – protection from convicted murderers. Life without parole is a promise we can make to victims’ families and actually keep.
Donald Heller is a former state and federal prosecutor who is the primary architect of California’s death penalty statute, signed the official ballot argument in support of Proposition 62 and wrote this viewpoint on behalf of the Yes on Prop. 62 campaign. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.