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Prosecutors, Cops and Judges: Ready to Ditch California’s Death Penalty

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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January 7, 2009

(Originally posted on the California Progress Report.)

In opinion pieces that appeared in papers across California last year, former prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officers raised their voices to declare: enough already, it’s time to ditch the death penalty. Let’s consider what they had to say.

Last April, Aundre Herron shared her unique perspective in the Sacramento Bee. Herron began her career as a prosecutor and later became a defense attorney. Yet, nothing in her professional life prepared her for the murder of her older brother Danny. As a result of what Heron calls a “legal technicality,” her brother’s killer was never convicted. She described the experience this way:

Having served on both sides of the criminal justice system, the experience of losing my brother in this unforgettably tragic way, without recourse or retribution, forced me to re-examine the way “execution” and “closure” are joined in contrived alliance, recited by death penalty advocates to justify their point of view. But having survived my brother’s murder without the “benefit” of the death penalty, it is clear to me that the death penalty cannot do what its proponents claim.

Former prosecutor Darryl Stallworth came to the same conclusion but through a different path: by asking a jury to sentence a man to death for five gruesome murders. In July, Stallworth’s perspective appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. Stallworth spent 15 years as a prosecutor in Alameda County and considered it a promotion when he was asked to handle a death penalty case. But things changed as he actually worked on the case and learned about the horrific childhood of the defendant who began his life in the maternity ward of a prison. In Stallworth’s words:

What crystallized for me during the trial was something I had slowly been realizing over my career as a prosecutor: I was witnessing a cycle of violence. . .

I realized I could no longer argue for the death of another human being no matter what atrocious things he or she may have done. I now understand that the death penalty is an ineffective, cruel and simplistic response to the complex problem of violent crime.

Decades of experience with California’s death penalty also showed the “hanging judge of Orange County” that the death penalty is cruel–to the survivors of murder victims. In July, Judge Donald McCartin joined activist and actor Mike Farrell in an op-ed that appeared in the LA Daily News, calling for legislators to “bring an end to the wasteful, hypocritical, demeaning exercise of capital punishment, and replace it with the safer, cheaper, fairer sentence of permanent imprisonment.” They summarized the judge’s change of heart this way:

Don McCartin, having sentenced nine men to death and then watched as the system examined, re-examined and finally overturned all of his convictions while executing none of them, now believes the death penalty is a hideously expensive fraud. It tortures the loved ones of murder victims by dragging them through the years of complex appeals required by the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to protect the innocent.

For Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin and former Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, it wasn’t the years of delays in death penalty cases but the experience of actually carrying out executions that shaped her perspective. In October, the L.A. Times published Woodford’s reflections:

As the warden of San Quentin, I presided over four executions. After each one, someone on the staff would ask, “Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?” We knew the answer: No.

Woodford said that the execution of Robert Massie “stands out among the executions I presided over as the strongest example of how empty and futile the act of execution is.” As Woodford noted, Massie is in many ways a “poster child” for the death penalty, having committed a second murder after being paroled from prison. She described the night of the execution and concluded:

I did my job, but I don’t believe it was the right thing to have done…. Massie needed to be kept away from society, but we did not need to kill him.

Why should we pay to keep him locked up for life? I hear that question constantly. Few people know the answer: It’s cheaper — much, much cheaper than execution.

For retired Police Chief Ray Samuels of Newark, California, it was both the outrageously high costs and the risk that we will execute an innocent person that persuaded him to change his mind on the death penalty after 33 years as a law enforcement officer in California. In December, his viewpoint appeared in the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and other East Bay papers:

I used to support the death penalty, but my experience in law enforcement has showed me that California would be better off if we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment…Despite the best intentions of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and jurors, innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death. The margin for error with the death penalty is too great. Once imposed, it is a bell that cannot be unrung…

Chief Samuels, like so many other prosecutors, correctional officer and judges, also believes that money wasted on the death penalty could be better spent making our communities safer:

If the millions of dollars currently spent on the death penalty were spent on investigating unsolved homicides, modernizing crime labs and expanding effective violence prevention programs, our communities would be much safer.

Together, these five individuals have more than 100 years of experience working to promote public safety, as prosecutors, law enforcement officers and a judge. Their professional and personal experiences are varied, their reasons are different, but their conclusion the same: it’s time for California to replace the death penalty with condemning the worst offenders to permanent imprisonment, and to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars saved into making our communities safe.

Perhaps it is time we listen.

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