It’s just plain wrong that the argument over a man’s life is reduced to a question of dollars and cents. But that’s what the battle over Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty in California, has come down to.
Sure, supporters argue that Prop. 34 would guarantee that “we’ll never execute an innocent person in California,” while opponents rage that the initiative “lets serial killers, cop killers, child killers and those who kill the elderly escape justice.”
But in the end, it’s the money that really matters.
In their ballot arguments, the folks behind the proposed ban talk about how the death penalty is just too expensive and that eliminating it would save the state nearly $1 billion over five years, money that can be used “to help our kids’ schools and catch more murders and rapists – without raising taxes.”
Au contraire, say supporters of capital punishment. California is broke, they argue, and ending the death penalty will cost the state $100 million over the next four years.
“Do you think giving vicious killers lifetime housing and healthcare benefits saves money?” they ask. “Of course not.”
Enough already. These are people we are talking about, not living, breathing solutions to the state budget problem.
I don’t think there’s a place for a state-sanctioned death penalty in California, or anywhere else for that matter. But I know there’s arguments to be made on both sides and God only knows they’ve been made enough times over the years as Californians have struggled over how to deal with criminals who kill.
Since 1972, when the California Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, there have been initiatives, court decisions, legal battles and legislation aplenty. In 1986, three state Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, were removed from office because of their apparent opposition to the death penalty.
Deciding whether a man should die is never an easy call. A Field Poll released this week found California voters almost evenly split over Prop. 34, with plenty still undecided, and, in many cases, likely agonizing over their decision.
In a previous life, I covered criminal courts in Los Angeles and sat through death penalty cases. They weren’t easy for the prosecutors, they weren’t easy for the defense attorneys, they weren’t easy for the judge and they weren’t easy for the jury.
And they certainly weren’t easy for the friends, relatives and loved ones of the murder victim, or the family and friends of the man facing his death.
There’s a finality about the death penalty that’s too often ignored by those who think its well-documented problems can be solved by making the road to execution both swifter and surer.
Think former Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis and his 1972 plan to deal with airplane hijackers: Give them a quick trial and “hang them at the airport.”
But since 1975, 140 people on death rows across the nation, including three in California, have been set free because evidence was found of their innocence. In 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty because there was no other way to ensure that an innocent man would not be executed.
Bring that figure up among death penalty advocates, though, and you too often hear about how “accidents happen” and metaphors about omelets and eggs.
Contrary to the beliefs of too many on the left, though, the vast majority of the more than 700 on San Quentin’s Death Row belong behind prison walls. They’ve proven – often many times – that they can’t live within the rules of society. For them – and we’re not just talking murders – the only solution is to separate them from the rest of us. Forever.
Prop. 34 does that by providing for life without parole for current Death Row inmates.
But for me, there’s another reason the death penalty has no place in a civilized society, especially one that, like ours, pays continual tribute to its Judeo-Christian origins.
When prosecutors and the families of victims talk about what they want for the murderer, they too often describe an eye-for-an-eye system that’s more about revenge than justice.
“Why is that killer still alive when my husband/wife/child/ is dead?” is the question that’s heard.
But the finality of state-sponsored death rejects the idea of repentance and atonement, primary tenets of most religious faiths.
Who can say whether even the worst criminal might not finally come to terms with the wrong he’s done and lives he’s destroyed and strive to live a better life, even behind bars?
But an execution denies the possibility that a man can change and or even that he deserves a chance to try.
Jaturun Siripongs was convicted of killing two people in a 1981 Garden Grove store robbery. During his 16 years on Death Row, he was a model inmate, praying daily, working on his artwork and staying polite and cooperative as he lived a life in the shadow of his death.
A former San Quentin warden asked that Siripongs’ sentence be commuted to life without parole, arguing that he could serve as a model to other inmates. Others calling for Siripongs’ life to be spared included a Death Row guard, a juror from his murder trial and the husband of one of his victims.
No matter. Siripong was killed by lethal injection on Feb. 10, 1999.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.