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Beyond the Grim Sleeper: Cut Death Penalty to Fund Criminal Investigations

Aqeela Sherrills: Why do we continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty even though it has never been proven to deter murderers and even though 1,000 killers get away with murder each year?

After 25 years, a suspect has finally been named in the “Grim Sleeper” serial murders. Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was arrested on July 7, 2010 and charged with ten counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for crimes dating back to August 1985.

lonnie franklin

The victims’ families can rest a little easier knowing that, even after 25 years, the Los Angeles Police Department is working on solving these murders. Solving homicides and holding murderers accountable provides justice for victims’ families and removes killers from our streets. As Donnell Alexander, brother of victim Monique Alexander, said, “It’s not closure, but it helps.”

Unfortunately, thousands of murder victim family members throughout California, like me, are still waiting for similar justice. According to a report by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, The Silent Crisis in California: Unsolved Murders, 1,000 murders go unsolved each year in California. This means that thousands more family members and friends of the victim are left wondering if their loved one’s killer is still out there.

In 2004, my son Terrell was murdered while home from college during his winter vacation. Six years later, no suspect has been identified.

While I wait for justice, my glimmer of hope gets dimmer. Los Angeles can no longer afford overtime for homicide investigators. Oakland is laying off police officers. The Victim’s Compensation Fund was cut by $50 million. To close the state’s $20 billion budget gap, Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing almost everything, often at the expense of victims.

Isn’t the Grim Sleeper case a hopeful example of homicide investigators’ diligent commitment to decades old cold cases? Unfortunately, the circumstances in the four years leading up to the arrest of Franklin Jr. aren’t the norm in cold case investigations.

For 25 years, the LAPD searched for a suspect with little success. Despite several brushes with the law, Franklin Jr. was never a suspect. In 2006, however, L.A. Weekly investigative reporter Christine Pelisek began putting pressure on the LAPD to inform the public that they were searching for a serial killer and that they needed help identifying him. With public support and many overtime hours, they finally arrested Franklin Jr.

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Unfortunately, most homicide cases don’t receive the media attention, public support, and overtime resources that the Grim Sleeper investigation has. After most homicides, there is a blurb in the newspaper and then we never hear about it again. The family members hear from detectives diligently for the first year, and then less frequently.

The primary obstacle to solving murders is inadequate staffing at homicide investigation units leading to poor quality investigations. While we cannot guarantee that every murder will be solved, we know how to increase the odds: increase the number of homicide investigators, improve the quality of forensic labs, and support and protect witnesses who come forward. We must make sure crime labs and law enforcement units have enough funding so that solving every murder becomes a possibility.

But in these dire economic times, where will funding come from? The Governor has proposed cutting almost every program. Except for one: California’s death penalty.

Why do we continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty even though it has never been proven to deter murderers and even though 1,000 killers get away with murder each year? We should work toward preventing violence and getting murderers off of our streets by solving cold cases instead of executing the select few murderers who are already in prison.

California is facing tough choices. We simply do not have the resources to provide every service and program. In this fiscal crisis, our public safety priority should be to remove the most violent and dangerous offenders from our communities. We cannot continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a symbolic yet ineffective death penalty system.

Aqeela Sherrills

If we need to cut something, let’s cut the death penalty.

Aqeela Sherrills

Aqeela Sherrills lost his son to homicide in 2004. He was one of the original organizers of the Watts "gang truce" in 1992 and is currently the Southern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.