By Sharon Rosen Leib
California voters face the daunting electoral task of slogging through voluminous sample ballots and deciphering 11 ballot propositions next month. One of these measures, Proposition 34, deserves our utmost attention. It gives us the chance to vote down an outrageously costly, ineffective and unjust law — California’s death penalty statute.
As a third year law student in 1987, I heard Elie Wiesel speak at a Reform synagogue in Washington, D.C. During the Q and A period someone asked him about his stance on the death penalty.
“I’m opposed to it. In a civilized society, we should never make a public spectacle of death,” he said. His words made an indelible impression. Coming from Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who lost both parents and a sister, this anti-death penalty stance bespoke a transcendent humanism rooted in Jewish values.
Back then I never imagined I’d witness the death penalty process up close and personal. But I did. As a junior deputy attorney general in the California Department of Justice’s San Francisco office, I worked across the hall from Dane Gillette, the state’s chief death penalty prosecutor. The year was 1992, and Robert Alton Harris, who in 1978 infamously murdered two 16-year-old boys here in San Diego County, was to be the first person executed in California in 25 years.
In April 1992, as Harris’s execution date finally approached, hurricane force winds of blood lust and retribution swept through California. An impatient public wanted Harris dead. The media focused on California’s chief death penalty enforcer. Could Dane Gillette pull it off? Reporters and news anchors clogged the hallway outside my office clamoring to get a dramatic quote from Gillette about the legal maneuvering. The frenetic activity increased daily, making meaningful work impossible.
On April 21, 1992, prison guards strapped Harris into the death chair in San Quentin’s gas chamber only to unstrap him minutes later when a federal judge granted a stay of execution. A few hours after Harris left the gas chamber the United States Supreme Court vacated the stay, and Harris was gassed to death. Harris’s execution, true to Wiesel’s words, created a circus-like public spectacle of death. It also burned through millions of taxpayer dollars.
What is price of death? The numbers are shocking. A 2011 study by federal judge Arthur Alarcón determined that California’s execution of 13 murderers over the past 34 years cost taxpayers roughly $4 billion. The death penalty, with its expensive, seemingly endless appeals, has become untenable in California.
Donald Heller, the former prosecutor who wrote the 1978 proposition to reinstate California’s death penalty, and Ron Briggs, who ran the campaign, now support Proposition 34. Heller and Briggs realize the California death penalty is a train wreck and seek to right the wrong they helped create. Like many other policy makers, they believe enforcing the death penalty wastes resources better spent on higher priorities like education, emergency services and murder investigations.
Proposition 34 is, at core, a remedial initiative. It aims to clean up the death penalty mess. And, believe me, death penalty enforcement is literally a mess. My senior colleagues in the Department of Justice worked in offices littered with stacks of cardboard bankers’ boxes overflowing with decades old trial transcripts and appellate briefs — some so ancient they smelled of mildew. Their death penalty cases stagnated for years in a legal morass.
Murderers sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP in criminal law jargon) are allowed just one appeal in state court. Justice comes swifter and cleaner. These lifers face grim futures in harsh, overcrowded, maximum-security prisons, trapped behind steel bars.
Proposition 34 makes good sense because it will repeal the death penalty as the maximum punishment for convicted murderers and replace it with LWOP; apply retroactively to convicts previously sentenced to death; require convicted murderers to work in prison, their wages to be applied to victim restitution fines and other court ordered paybacks; and create a $100 million fund for law enforcement agencies to spend on solving homicide and rape cases.
This measure will also save taxpayers an estimated $184 million a year — the cost differential between implementing the death penalty and LWOP sentences.
I understand the human urge to extract an eye for an eye. If someone murdered or even laid a hand on one of my precious daughters, I’d want to administer the lethal injection to the monster myself. But this would only indulge my basest instinct. As Wiesel said, “Death is not the answer.” Murderers sentenced to LWOP live like caged animals and die in prison. That is punishment enough.