Illinois Ends the Death Penalty: Wake-up Call for California

Bob Kerr, his niece, and Judy Kerr

Bob Kerr, his niece, and Judy Kerr

The end of Illinois’ death penalty comes at a time when more and more people express the view that the death penalty is ineffective, costly, and unjust. A slew of recent editorials and opinion pieces have highlighted the enormous problems with the death penalty in California in particular.  As these editorials and op eds show, it is time for California to cut this: the death penalty.

An editorial recently published in The San Jose Mercury, Pasadena Star News, Long Beach Telegram, and other papers, calls on Governor Brown to convert all death sentences to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole to the death penalty, to save the state $1 billion over the next five years. As these editorials point out, the money now wasted on the death penalty could be better spent to fund education and invest in public safety. Yet, at a time of financial crisis, the Governor and lawmakers are instead choosing to cut public safety, as well as healthcare and education, while remaining on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in five years.

“This,” the editorial says, “is fiscal insanity.”

Concerns about the number of innocent people sentenced to death also continue to grow. Many editorials praising Illinois for ending the death penalty, including one by the Register Guard of Oregon, noted that at least 20 people had been wrongly sentenced to death in that state alone.  A recent editorial in the LA Times observes that many other states, including California, have also mistakenly sentenced innocent men and women to death.  An editorial published in the Vallejo Times-Herald elaborates:

In just the five states that have abolished capital punishment in the last quarter century, 27 innocent lives were spared when it was learned they had been wrongly convicted. There’s no way to determine how many were wrongly killed by the state.

Aqeela Sherrills,

Aqeela Sherrills,

More disturbing is that in the 34 states that still have the death penalty, more than 100 Death Row inmates have been freed. …

DNA, while an effective exoneration tool, is not helpful in many cases where such evidence plays no role. We don’t know how many condemned inmates who proclaim their innocence actually are, but the system’s inherent flaws indicate the strong possibility they exist. Any system that permits even one innocent man to die should be abolished.

California’s death penalty is also a hollow promise to victims. Because we don’t want to execute an innocent person, courts carefully review each death sentence, resulting in a long and cumbersome process that takes, on average, 25 years. As a result, the family members of murder victims are dragged through decades of painful court proceedings that, 99% of the time, do not end in an execution. Recently, the LA Times published an editorial written by retired Superior Court Judge Donald McCartin. McCartin, who presided over 10 murder cases in which he sentenced someone to die, said:

I am deeply angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that it makes mockery of decisions I once believed promised resolution for the family members of victims.

The only way to end the charade, McCartin concluded, is to end the death penalty:

It’s time to stop playing the killing game. Let’s use the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let’s stop asking people like me to lie to those victim’s family members.

Aqeela Sherrills, whose son was murdered, and Judy Kerr, whose brother was murdered, echoed these sentiments in recent op eds. Noting that the state has cut funding for victims services, while maintaining spending on the death penalty, Kerr said:

natasha minskerThere must be room for justice for victims in our budget. The death penalty is not where we will find it. Real justice comes from protecting each other and helping victims rebuild their lives after the devastating loss of a loved one. Instead of cutting funding for victims’ services, cut this: the death penalty.

Illinois rightly concluded that the death penalty cannot be fixed but must be replaced with life without the possibility of parole, and redirected the money that had been wasted on the death penalty to victims’ services and law enforcement.  Ask Governor Brown to do the same: cut the death penalty today.

Natasha Minsker

Natasha Minsker is death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

Published by the LA Progressive on April 22, 2011
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