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san quentin death row

Death Row at San Quentin Prison

Sunday, on the final day of its three-day executive board meeting held in Anaheim, the California Democratic Party overwhelmingly endorsed Prop 34 -- the November ballot initiative that would commute all the state's death sentences to life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP).

Saturday night, though, a lively five-person panel session organized by the party's Progressive Caucus paired Prop 34 proponents with prisoner rights advocates to debate whether the Prop 34 remedy might be worse than the ailment.

In question was whether a soul-killing sentence of lifelong imprisonment with no chance of ever being released is any more humane, any more decent, any more sensible than the uncertain prospect of eventual execution on Death Row.

But then if Prop 34 fails in November, how long before another massive, expensive effort can be mounted to bring more humanity and compassion -- never mind rehabilitation -- to California's criminal punishment system?

Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for the Yes on 34 campaign and ACLU of Northern California's Death Penalty Policy Director, set the table for the discussion.

"Executions have been on hold for six years in California. If we had had executions during that time, 14 people would have been executed," she said, indicating that the State's Department of Corrections is moving to a one-drug protocol that may satisfy the courts, which means executions are imminent.

natasha minsker

Natasha Minsker

"Prop 34 will stop executions and that will be momentous," Minsker continued. "And a victory in California is crucial to the national campaign to end the death penalty."

Because the death penalty was created by voters through the initiative process, it must be revoked by California's voters the same way. That also means that the life without parole provision can only be similarly undone through the state's cumbersome and expensive initiative process.

"What Prop 34 Will Do"

[dc]"T[/dc]he SAFE California Act replaces death with LWOP, which means we will never execute an innocent person," said James Clark, Minsker's ACLU colleague and Southern California regional "Yes on 34" campaign coordinator. "It will save the state $130,000,000 per year over LWOP, part of which can go to local law enforcement agencies to improve fingerprint and DNA procedures."

Panelists Natasha Minsker, James Clark, Elsbeth Farmer, Christine Thomas, and Barbara Bechnel

Panelists Natasha Minsker, James Clark, Christine Thomas, Elsbeth Farmer, and Barbara Bechnel

The financial savings will come from eliminating the special Death Row housing at San Quentin and also the separate penalty phase trial required for individuals convicted of murder under special circumstances. Currently, under the voter-supported initiative in 1972, individuals convicted of first degree murder under special circumstances -- murdering a judge or police officer, murdering for financial gain or as part of criminal gang actives, among others -- face only two options: life without possibility of parole or death. Prop 34 simply eliminates one.

"Currently, in California, 46% of murders are unsolved; 56% of reported rapes are unsolved," reported Clark. "Keeping our communities safe is another form of improving justice."

Minsker interjected that the initiative, if passed, would simply remove death as one of the two penalties currently mandated by the California penal code. Said Minsker, "Currently, in California, the penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of murder in the first degree with special circumstances is either death or imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole, the successful passage of this initiative would result in the removal of "death" as a penalty."

"We're Dead Men Walking, Too"

[dc]"T[/dc]he elephant in the room is that there have been no prisoner voices in this discussion," said Christine Thomas, a sentencing reform activist with Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "You need to hear prisoner voices. You need to hear about the other death penalty -- that people will die in prison without the chance at parole."

Correll Thomas, Christine's husband, is currently housed on San Quentin's Condemned Row, indicated Karen Bernal, the Progressive Caucus chair who moderated the event along with Vice Chair Mike Thaller. Thomas reported that her husband and other Death Row inmates she was advocated for oppose LWOP.

The "Yes on 34" campaign has relied heavily on law enforcement representatives to drum up support for the initiative: former California Attorney General and LA County DA John Vandecamp, former LA County DA Gil Garcetti, and former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford are all principal spokespersons.

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Christine Thomas

Christine Thomas

As a consequence, according to Thomas, prisoner rights groups have been left out of the planning, perhaps to assuage the conservative law enforcement community, and no one has sought the views of current Death Row inmates.

The fact that so much of the iniative's savings will go to improving law enforcement, rather than to rehabilitation to reduce crime rates, speaks to the initiative's law enforcement bias, according to the prisoner rights panelists.

Currently, according to Elspeth Farmer, the chairwoman of the criminal justice plank of the California Democratic Party Platform Committee, there are 728 individuals on Death Row.

"328 of them have no attorney, so they would go into LWOP if Prop 34 passes," said Farmer, who as worked with Death Row inmates as an attorney. "They would have the right to habeus corpus, to appeal their cases, but would not have the state-supported attorney they currently have on Death Row. Without that, they could never appeal their cases."

As a consequence, these former Death Row inmates would join the other 4,000 California prisoners serving life without parole sentences, and so would have less chance to clear their names.

barbara becnel

Barbara Bechnel

Barbara Becnel, who worked for years in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win a new trial for Stanley "Tookie" Williams, told of other LWOP prisoners who would approach her as she visited Williams to say that the only way they would leave San Quentin was in a casket.

"'What about us?' they would ask," Becnel said. "We're dead men walking, too.'"

Becnel felt that the whole controversy could have been avoided had there been more transparency in the initiative's planning, more chance for prisoner rights activists to address the inhumane life without possibility of parole sentencing as well.

"Prop 34 is anti lethal injection, but it's not really anti-death penalty," Becnel said. "If you want to get rid of the death penalty, then get rid of LWOP, too."

A Hobson's Choice

[dc]"W[/dc]e face a terrible choice," said Leah Herzberg, a long-time activist with the Valley Dems United Club of Van Nuys, in the question and answer period."We surely oppose the death penalty, but we don't want LWOP either."

Minsker noted that removing the death penalty option will have a positive effect on LWOP sentences as well, citing evidence from New York that fewer defendants plead guilty to murder without the threat of execution hanging over their heads. With a less draconian fate awaiting them, they are more likely to fight for their freedom.

Although Christine Thomas and Barbara Bechnel thought a new, more inclusive initiative effort could be mounted should Prop 34 fail, others in the room wondered how we could ever win by losing, given the huge effort -- including gathering 800,000 qualifying signatures -- needed to get the "Yes on 34" effort this far.


Prop 34 is a very narrow initiative, with a broad range of supporters needed to pass the initiative," concluded James Clark, acknowledging Prop 34's imperfections. "We cannot reform prisons top to bottom with one initiative."

Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive

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Posted: Monday, 30 July 2012