NEW VOICES: Creators of California's Death Penalty Law Now Call for Life Without Parole

Donald Heller (pictured), who wrote California's death penalty law, and Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to reinstate the law in 1978, are now advocating for replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Both now say that the law did not have the result they intended. “At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Briggs said. But the costs of the death penalty system has led him to reconsider his stance: "I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’" Donald Heller, a former prosecutor, called California's death penalty system a "colossal failure," also mentioning its high costs, “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose." Both men are supporting a November ballot initiative that would replace death sentences with life without parole and use the money saved to solve cold cases. California has not carried out an execution in six years, and has about 720 inmates on death row.

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Connecticut Senate Votes to Repeal Death Penalty

On April 5, the state senate in Connecticut approved (20-16) a bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without a parole. The bill is prospective and would not affect the 11 inmates currently on death row.  The senate passed an amendment to the original repeal bill requiring future defendants convicted of murder with special circumstances to be subject to the same confinement conditions as current death row inmates. Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Miford, a former supporter of the death penalty, remarked, "For me, the most compelling reason to reject the death penalty is to set ourselves on the path to the kind of society we really want for our future,'' she said.  "I want something better for our future,'' Slossberg added. "We cannot confront darkness with darkness and expect light."  Before the vote, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, (pictured) who led the debate in favor of repeal, said, "Today is a dramatic and potentially historic day because the Senate has ... an opportunity to correct the arbitrariness, the discrimination, the random haphazard approach to the application of our death penalty in this state.'' If passed by the House and signed into law, both of which appear likely, Connecticut would become the fifth state in five years to abandon capital punishment.

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Connecticut Senate Poised to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal

The Connecticut Senate is expected to vote as early as Wednesday (April 4) on a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The bill, which would only affect future sentencing, passed the Judiciary Committee on March 21 and needs at least 18 votes to pass in the Senate. If it passes the Senate, it is considered likely to pass the House, and Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to sign the bill into law. A similar bill passed the General Assembly in 2009, but was vetoed by then-Governor Jodi Rell. Murder victims’ families and friends are among the strongest supporters of the repeal. A letter signed by 179 Connecticut murder victims’ families stated, “Our direct experiences with the criminal justice system and struggling with grief have led us all to the same conclusion: Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families.... In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system. And as the state hangs onto this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims’ services.” If Connecticut repeals the death penalty, it will become the 5th state to do so in the past 5 years. Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York have all abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Other states are also considering repeal of the death penalty, including California, where 800,000 signatures have been gathered to place the issue on the ballot in November.

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NEW VOICES: Kansas Judge and Religious Leaders Recommend Death Penalty Repeal

Retired District Judge Steven Becker, along with prosecutors, defense lawyers, and religious leaders, recently testified at a legislative hearing in Kansas in favor of a bill to repeal the death penalty. Judge Becker commented, "As long as the death penalty is a part of our imperfect system, there will always be the unacceptable possibility of the execution of an innocent person." Ron Wurtz, a federal public defender and a former director of the state’s Death Penalty Defense Unit, highlighted the ongoing risks of executing innocent defendants: "The American people have seen the ongoing releases from death row. About one release for wrongful conviction for every nine executions."  Other groups voicing their concerns with the state’s death penalty were the Kansas Catholic Conference, the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the League of Women Voters.  Testimony indicated the death penalty imposes a significant financial burden on the state: the cost of prosecution and appellate action on a single death penalty case was estimated at $1.2 million, while the incarceration of someone sentenced to life in prison was placed at $740,000. 

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EDITORIALS: "Maryland's Broken Death Penalty"

A recent editorial in The Washington Post highlighted ongoing problems with Maryland’s death penalty despite legislation passed in 2009 meant to reform the system. According to the editorial, “the legislature’s reform fixed nothing; if anything, it codified a system even more arbitrary than the one it replaced. Now the nature of the evidence, rather than the barbarity of the crime, is the critical factor. So a murder conviction based on DNA evidence might result in a death sentence, but not a Virginia Tech-style killing spree whose perpetrator is identified by multiple witnesses.” The editorial also explained that the reforms did not address racial and jurisdictional disparities in the death penalty’s application, and continues to impose burden on murder victims’ survivors: “The broken system is particularly burdensome for the families of murder victims, who face years, even decades, of litigation. Three of the state’s five death-row prisoners were sentenced nearly 30 years ago; the others were sentenced in the mid-1990s.” The editorial called for the Maryland General Assembly to consider ending the death penalty, saying that “by ducking the issue, they are leaving in place a costly, inefficient, unjust and dysfunctional system that exacts a terrible toll on the families of murder victims.”  Read full editorial below.

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NEW VOICES: Kentucky Prosecutors Call for Death Penalty Reform

An Op-Ed signed by eleven current and former Kentucky prosecutors calls for reforms to Kentucky's death penalty, in light of the recent report issued by the American Bar Association. The ABA report was released in December after a two-year study of fairness and accuracy in capital cases in Kentucky. The prosecutors cite Kentucky's "unacceptable" 60% error rate in death sentencing, saying "As a matter of basic fairness, we must pause to understand and reform the way capital punishment is administered in our state." They recommend a suspension of executions until reforms are implemented, in order to ensure a fair process. Among their suggestions for reform are a proposal currently being considered by the state legislature that would exempt severly mentally ill defendants from the death penalty. Other recommendations include preservation and testing of biological evidence, increased funding for indigent defense, and revision of jury instructions. They conclude, "The hallmark of our criminal justice system is that its process is fair and its results are reliable and accurate. Our reversal rate undermines this hallmark. These troubling issues in capital cases must be addressed now."

Read full op-ed below.

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LEGISLATION: Virginia Rejects Death Penalty Expansion Bill

On February 22, Virginia's legislature blocked a bill that would have allowed the death penalty for accomplices to murder who did not actually carry out the killing. The bill would have revised the state’s “triggerman rule,” which allows the death penalty only for the person directly responsible for the actual murder. Two weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was rejected by the Courts of Justice Committee on a 7-7 vote. The House then passed its own version of the bill, forcing the Senate to reconsider the measure. The Courts Committee again rejected the expansion bill, this time by a vote of 8-6. The vote difference was attributed to Republican Senator Bryce Reeves, who said he changed his vote based on his religious beliefs. Similar bills were passed by the Virginia legislature in 2008 and 2009, but were vetoed by then-Governor Tim Kaine. In 2010 and 2011, the Senate Courts Committee rejected similar bills. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, called the bill “an unnecessary[,] expensive and risky expansion of capital punishment.” Among those opposing the bill were representatives of Catholic organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. Some of these noted that the state already ranks second to Texas in the number of executions since the the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and that expanding death penalty eligibility would increase the chances of executing an innocent person.

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NEW VOICES: Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Calls for Unanimous Juries in Death Cases

A recent op-ed in the Miami Herald by Raoul Cantero (pictured), former Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, called for state legislators to require unanimity in the penalty phase of death penalty trials. Five years ago, a study conducted by the American Bar Association found that Florida was an outlier in allowing capital juries to find aggravating circumstances and recommend death sentences by a simple majority. The op-ed, co-written by Mark Schlakman, a member of the ABA’s Florida Death Penalty Assessment team, highlighted that there have been more death row exonerations in Florida than any other state. The authors said the bill “would help to ensure that the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes.“ The writers concluded, “Regardless of … one’s views on capital punishment, maintaining the status quo and thereby Florida’s outlier status in this country does not serve the cause of justice.” Read full op-ed below.

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Sentence Near Under Maryland's New Death Penalty Law

Richard DieterIn 2009, Maryland changed its capital punishment law, sharply limiting when the death penalty could be sought. Prosecutors can only pursue the death penalty in cases of first degree murder when there is DNA or other biological evidence linking the defendant to a murder, a video-taped confession by the defendant, or a video linking the defendant to the murder. As the first case testing this statute nears completion, DPIC’s Executive Director, Richard Dieter (pictured), was interviewed on Maryland Morning with Sheila Kast about the new statute.  Listen to full interview here.  Dieter noted, “There’s certainly a danger that it doesn’t do what the death penalty is most designed to do, which is to get the 'worst of the worst' - the most heinous crimes committed by the most dangerous criminal. [The Maryland law] only requires the coincidence that there be DNA or that there be a camera rolling … It still doesn’t deal with the problems of bias and geographical disparities. It tries to deal with the innocence question and in doing so discards the usual rationale for the death penalty of … the worst get the worst punishment.”  The current case involves a prison inmate accused of killing a correctional officer.  Blood drops from the officer were found on the defendant's clothing, though defense attorneys maintain their client was merely present at the scene along with other inmates and did not kill the guard.  Maryland legislators are currently considering a bill to repeal the death penalty.  Interview.

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NEW VOICES: Sponsor of California's 1978 Death Penalty Initiative Now Supports Repeal

Ron Briggs, sponsor of the initiative which expanded California’s death penalty law in 1978, recently announced his support for repeal of the law.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Ron Briggs explained that the 1978 Briggs Initiative was meant to “give prosecutors better tools for meting out just punishments, and that a broadened statute would serve as a warning to all California evildoers that the state would deliver swift and final justice” and “creat[e] a national model for capital punishment.” Thirty-four years later, he and other sponsors have all independently concluded that the system is not working. Briggs wrote, “Each of us remains a staunch Republican conservative, but our perspectives on the death penalty have changed. We'd thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers. Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers. Our initiative was intended to bring about greater justice for murder victims. Never did we envision a multibillion-dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades of extremely expensive incarceration. We thought we would empty death row, not triple its population.” (emphasis added).  Briggs concluded, “Had I known then what we do today, I would have pushed for strong life sentences without the possibility of parole. I still believe that society must be protected from the most heinous criminals, and that they don't deserve to ever again be free. But I'd like to see them serve their terms with the general prison population, where they could be required to work and pay restitution into the victims' compensation fund.”  Ron Briggs is currently a member of the Board of Supervisors in El Dorado County, California. Read full op-ed below.

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