A reluctant vote to end capital punishment
by Kelvin Wade
It was August 1996 when Richard Allen Davis, convicted of the rape and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, committed one last despicable act. While reading a statement before sentencing, he said that the reason he knows he didn’t commit a lewd act upon the young girl was because she’d told him, “Just don’t do me like my dad.” Polly Klaas’ father, Marc, erupted in anger and was removed from the courtroom. The judge Davis made it easy to sentence him to death.
Here it is 16 years later, and Davis is still breathing. There are high profile names among the over 700 people on California’s death row. Scott Peterson, who killed his pregnant wife Laci, was sentenced to death in 2005. In 2002, Cary Stayner was condemned to die for killing four women near Yosemite. Charles Ng, who murdered over 11 victims with his partner Leonard Lake in Calaveras County, was sentenced to die in 1999. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who killed over 14 people, was sentenced to death in 1989.
It’s an insult to the victims that these people still draw breath. It’s a horrific case of justice denied.
Now a measure has been placed on the November ballot to abolish capital punishment in California completely and replace it with life without parole. Despite believing that the aforementioned inmates deserve death, I reluctantly agree that it’s time for California to dump capital punishment.
It’s not like California has an effective death penalty now. In fact, on December 16th, 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled that California’s lethal injection protocol violated the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. There’s been a death penalty moratorium ever since as the state has tried to make sure their protocols are effective and staff is satisfactorily trained.
California has only executed 13 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Texas executed that many last year. The leading cause of death on death row is natural causes. In fact, 76 inmates have died of natural causes or suicide. At the beginning of this month, Frank Manuel Abilez died after a long illness. Abilez had been on death row for 15 years after being convicted of sodomizing and murdering his own mother.
From a fiscal point of view, capital punishment has been a disaster for California. We’ve spent about $4 billion since 1976 or $308 million per execution. By 2030, that amount will grow to $9 billion. Condemned row currently costs us $184 million a year.
I’m someone who has always supported capital punishment. I’ve thought the moratorium has been a joke. Somehow we’ve equated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruelty with painless. The Constitution doesn’t require executions to be painless. In fact, at the time the Constitution was written, hanging passed Constitutional muster. Is lethal injection crueler than hanging or being broken on the wheel, which was also a method of execution in this country?
It would’ve been more understandable to me if the moratorium were based on the unfairness of the application of the penalty. One thing that has come up consistently in the studies is that the race of the victim is the common denominator in capital cases. Killers of white victims are more likely to receive a death sentence than if the victim is black or Hispanic.
Then there is the matter of people escaping death row after DNA or other evidence has cleared them. Dallas County, Texas has seen 30 death row convictions overturned since 2001.
So financially, the system is a burden. There is also the chance that a wrongfully convicted person could be executed. And I’m swayed by the cruelty in having victims’ families wait 10, 15 to 20 years to receive justice. That’s not justice.
So come November, I’ll vote to abolish the death penalty in California. I still believe the heinous killers I mentioned at the beginning of this column deserve execution. Richard Allen Davis’ guilt is not in dispute. He led authorities to Polly Klaas’ body and admitted to killing her. One comfort is that Davis probably won’t last long once moved from death row to general population. Inmates blame him for California’s Three Strikes Law and he’s already been attacked once on death row.
But it’s painfully obvious that our system in California is just not working.
Speaking of working, can we at least put inmates to work doing hard labor? Or is that too cruel too?