As California lawmakers consider legislation that would put executions on hold for two years while a 13-member commission reviews the problem of wrongful convictions in the state, a group of current and former prosecutors have sent members of the state Assembly a letter urging passage of the measure. “The execution of an innocent person is unacceptable, and it is imperative that California takes every precaution that it never happens. This is not just a matter of justice for these individuals. It is a matter of public safety…. If an innocent person is convicted, that means that the true perpetrator may well still be free to commit more crimes,” the prosecutors wrote.

Among the prosectors signing the letter were Donald Heller, who authored the state’s 1978 death penalty statute, and Ira Reiner, whose office sent dozens of people to death row when he was Los Angeles County’s district attorney from 1984 to 1992. Imperial County deputy district attorney John Willis, San Francisco County sheriff Michael Hennessy, and former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin also signed the letter.

Heller noted that the California death penalty law “was written to provide a fair method.” He added, “In practice it has not worked out that way. … There are too many variables law can’t control.” Among Heller’s chief concerns is the quality of representation a capital defendant receives. Reiner stated, “I don’t see any appropriate argument against a brief moratorium on executions while the death penalty process in California is examined very carefully by serious people. If the state is going to have the moral authority to take a life, it has to be done when there are no questions about the fairness of the trial.”

California’s Assembly is currently considering the moratorium legislation supported by the prosecutors. Last year, the state’s lawmakers passed legislation to create the 13-member California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a group that includes both supporters and opponents of capital punishment.

(Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2006) See New Voices, Innocence and Recent Legislative Activity.