Justice Delayed

The San Diego County District Attorney is not verbally gifted. But Bonnie Dumanis was on the mark when she called the death penalty in California a “hollow promise.” She said this after accepting a plea agreement with a man named John Gardner who raped and murdered two teenage girls. The killer traded his plea for a sentence of life in prison without parole.

California has, by far, the largest number of people on death row of any state. We have 702 condemned prisoners. And since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only thirteen people have been executed. A story in the San Diego Union Tribune pointed out that during that time a total of 86 death-row inmates have died, most from natural causes, a few by suicide and even fewer by execution.

If justice delayed is justice denied, then hundreds of families of murder victims in California are being denied justice. In fact, the families who saw the killers of their sons, daughters, spouses and parents die of natural causes in San Quentin will be denied justice forever. This was clearly one of the reasons why the parents of those teenage girls agreed that the DA should settle for life in prison without parole. The death penalty in California is a cruel joke, and victims’ families are the butt of it.

I don’t know why death penalty proceedings for California convicts take decades. All condemned prisoners are guaranteed appeals to the State Supreme Court and federal district court. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice wrote in a report that there’s a serious shortage of state public defenders to handle death penalty appeals.

But I suspect the real problem is that the people who run things in this state are not comfortable with the death penalty. Their reticence has led to endless delays in the process. The death penalty is a broken apparatus they don’t want to fix.

There are a lot of good reasons  to be uncomfortable with the death penalty. Allowing the state to kill, on behalf of its residents, is morally questionable. Also, our justice system is not perfect. That means the death penalty will inevitably lead to innocent people being put to death.

If we agree on nothing else we must agree that California’s death penalty is a costly farce and it has to change. I see two ways. The first option, and certainly the most practical, is to simply get rid of it. Make life in prison without parole the ultimate punishment, reserved for the most horrible crimes.

The second possibility is to keep the death penalty, but require a higher burden of proof to sentence a person to death. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t enough. The state should have to prove its case beyond a shadow of doubt before it can kill a convict. That would dramatically reduce the number of people we put on death row, and it would make the appellate system less cumbersome and less necessary.

Dropping crimes rates and the passing of time have caused public opinion in California to turn against the death penalty, even though a majority still support it. I hope we will evolve into a society that no longer needs or wants the death penalty. But if society demands it, society should also demand a death penalty that protects the rights of the condemned and the rights of victims’ families, who deserve a prompt exercise of justice.

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5 Comments on “Justice Delayed”

  1. Greg Duch Says:

    I find it hard to understand what qualifies one human being to have the power of life and death over another human being. Do those who pronounce a death sentence belong to a higher strata of being?

    What criteria of moral, intellectual, religious superiority declares one person fit to pronounce death to be the immediate fate of another?

  2. Jim Fudge Says:

    I must admit that whenever a young person has been violated and even murdered, I am at sea with my reactions. Firstly, I am so enraged to hear of such a deed that I would be delighted to end the life of the perpetrator myself with whatever weapon came to hand. However I know that I cannot really think of taking the life of another living being, and so must join those who would wish to end the issuance of the death penalty.

  3. Jim Fudge Says:

    On the subject of the death penalty I am alway at sea. When a young girl or boy is abused or even killed my rage consumes me and, should i have the opportunity, I would be overjoyed to end the life of the animal who committed the deed myself! But on reflection and after calming down I know that I could never commit such a thing let along hurting another living thing. So i guess I’d fall in with those of us that would do away with the death penalty although I feel so very sad and enraged whenever I hear that another young woman has been violated and murdered.

  4. Jerral Miles Says:

    Tom,
    When I was a young graduate student with a wife and a child, I needed a job; and I found one that paid reasonably well, allowed me to work at night, and offered good fringe benefits for my little family. I was a correctional officer (1959-1961) at San Quentin Prison where California houses and rarely these days executes persons condemned to death. For the execution of a twenty-seven-year-old man named Richard Harmon I was required to be present in the gas chamber to ensure the safety of a young man who had asked to be an official witness. In those days the law required eighteen official witnesses to an execution. A guard was required for each of the witnesses. I was so emotionally undone by the experience that after fifty years I have not forgotten a single detail of it.

    Harmon had never killed anyone. Perhaps he did something even worse. In a riot at another prison he had assaulted a guard who didn’t die but was left in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. I had actually got acquainted with Richard Harmon when I was assigned briefly to duty on death row. He was hardly a monster. As a matter of fact, his story was very much like that of many other of the five thousand inmates in San Quentin, which had been built for three thousand prisoners. Whether he deserved to die for what he did is not the question. Whether a society should ever under any circumstances deliberately kill one of its citizens is the issue. I don’t know of any good that was accomplished by killing Richard Harmon… not for the state or for the man who had been brutalized beyond recovery or for the man’s family.

    It is the state that executes. I am a citizen of the state. I am brutalized by being complicit in any way in the killing of another human being.
    Jerral

  5. Greg Duch Says:

    I have always wondered what my reaction would be, were I given the task of being on a jury, which might involve imposition of the penalty of death on the convicted crimminal.

    Two realities prey on the mind.
    Once the sentence is executed, there is no possible further appeal to reverse the sentence.

    Two, death is something beyond the personal experience of most people I know. When someone is condemned to death. The question comes to mind: “What is death?”

    Death is the one reality forever shrouded in mystery for those who still live, no?

    Juries which are composed of living persons cannot appreciate fully the implications of their decision to send someone else to their death.

    Thanks, Greg


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