Some advocates of the death penalty say capital punishment serves family members of murder victims. Prosecutors like LA County’s Steve Cooley, one of the nation’s most prolific death penalty prosecutors, often claim they seek the death penalty because it provides victims’ family members with closure, though many crime victims and victims’ advocates have questioned the myth of “closure” when it comes to the death of a loved one. But like every other justification for the death penalty, this theory often fails the test.
A growing number of victims’ advocacy organizations are taking a stand against the death penalty because it prioritizes executions above the real needs of victims. Groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have shown how the needs of victims are often shunted aside in favor of the politics of executions.
LA County is currently prosecuting one glaring example. Manling Williams was convicted of murdering her husband and two sons, leaving behind the victims’ mother and grandmother Jan Williams. After the conviction, the LA County District Attorney’s Office under DA Steve Cooley sought a death sentence, but the jury deadlocked, presenting the DA with the choice of whether to end the trial with a life without parole sentence or seek death again. Jan Williams, having endured one penalty hearing seeking death, sent a letter to the DA asking prosecutors to drop the death penalty and accept life without parole. The DA refused.
“You feel like you don’t matter to either side, like it’s just a chess game between them,” She told the LA Times. “It’s crazy at this point to go through it all again. What is it for? What does it bring to us?”
The DA’s refusal will have tremendous consequences. First and foremost, Jan Williams will experience another harrowing penalty phase, which may or may not result in a death sentence for Manling Williams. Either way, that phase will incur significant costs to LA County – potentially upwards of $1 million, as a new jury is empanelled and investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges re-enact the hearing. If the jury returns a death sentence, the legal ordeal experienced by Jan Williams could potentially last a lifetime – 25 years, on average. That time will be spent in more traumatic hearings, appeals proceedings and clemency requests, and it will cost the state and county millions more taxpayer dollars.
At the end of those 25 years of traumatic and expensive hearings, it’s possible that Manling Williams will be executed as promised by prosecutors after decades go by and millions of dollars are spent. Then again, that execution will probably never happen, massive waste notwithstanding, because the majority of California death row inmates die of natural causes or suicide long before they reach the execution chamber. Those facts prompted the San Diego District Attorney to call the death penalty a “hollow promise” for victims’ family members.
Like many states, California has tried in the past to provide real services for victims’ families to help work toward healing, and in that vein established the Victims Compensation Program in 1965 to provide money for counseling, funeral services, and living expenses for families of homicide victims. But once again, the theory falls short of reality. In 2009, the fund was gutted by $50 million, and in the last few weeks the fund has approached bankruptcy. That means California is unable to provide victims of violent crime with funding for funeral services or counseling, but we can still afford to try over and over again to secure an execution that could cost millions.
I’m not the only one who thinks these are Bizarro World priorities. Aqeela Sherrills, the Southern California Coordinator of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV), said, “It speaks volumes about our broken death penalty system when prosecutors seek the death penalty against the expressed desires of the victims’ family. It sounds more like a career move for the prosecutor, and capitalizing on the suffering of the victims at the expense of tax payers.”
Like other supporters of CCV, Mr. Sherrills opposes the death penalty even after losing a family member to violence. He spoke with me about the stark difference in priorities between law enforcement and his family in the wake of his son’s murder: “When my son was murdered in January 2004, I expressed the need for more programs and services to help kids like the one who killed my son. The detective looked at me with bewilderment and said, ‘I can’t believe you have compassion for these monsters!’ It’s been seven years since my son was murdered and his case remains unsolved.”
Cases like Mr. Sherrills’ are common. While resources are funneled into death penalty prosecutions, thousands of cold cases remain unsolved because of a lack of funds for investigations and law enforcement. And those programs and services Mr. Sherrills mentioned that actually help prevent violence? How can we fund those as long as we keep bankrolling executions?
Here’s a better idea: tell Steve Cooley to stop death penalty prosecutions in LA.
With that simple change of policy in DA Cooley’s office, LA County can save millions of dollars each year for things like crime prevention, public safety, after school programs for at-risk youth, and real services for victims of violent crime who are trying to move forward with their lives. And best of all, we can listen to crime victims and help them avoid the 25-year trauma of a death penalty prosecution.
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