California lawmakers spark new death penalty debate

By Isaiah Jurado

Source: CBS Los Angeles

Source: CBS Los Angeles

The death penalty is one of our most controversial issues, making it a prime candidate for intense political debate, even among the political elite. California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently broke her longtime stance on the death penalty by filing an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court to overturn a lower court decision that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

Harris has a previous track record of avoiding the death penalty in cases where it was seen as a viable option, most notably in 2004, when she refused to pursue the death penalty for the murder of Isaac Espinoza, a Bayview Station police officer.

Now it seems that she has changed her stance, as she appealed to uphold the constitutionality of the death penalty after U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled it unconstitutional. This ruling was in reaction to the issue that our large death row population and few instances of actually applying the death penalty creates. Carney argued that California arbitrarily administers the sentence making the entire process is unreasonable because it is too long.

Carney wrote: “Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

He also added that “In California, the execution of a death sentence is so infrequent, and the delays preceding it so extraordinary, that the death penalty is deprived of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had. Such an outcome is antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Additionally, support was found from Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center. Laurence explains in his written statement: “There is no rational explanation, much less any moral or societal justification, for which people are ultimately executed, the execution of Mr. Jones, and the others like him whose meritorious legal claims have gone unheard for decades, serves no valid state interest.”

More than 900 people have been sentenced to death row in California since 1978. We currently have 748 prisoners on death row, the highest of any state. With all the support for the anti-death penalty movement, why is Harris, who has been a long opponent against the penalty suddenly defending it?

According to Harris’ court papers filed last Monday: “California’s system for carefully reviewing capital convictions and sentences is lengthy, hence the huge delay. It might be hastened if the state had no resource constraints, or less interest in ensuring the accuracy and legality of its judgments in capital cases.”

Rather than completely advocating the death penalty, it seems that Harris believes that a more efficient system can be implemented and the importance of the death penalty to the legal system is too great to scrap altogether.  So what is the right path for California’s death penalty sentence?

According to files obtained by the Los Angeles Times, “maintaining the California death penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life.”

This does not include court costs.

Inmates on death row require private cells and additionally security as opposed to inmates in the general population.  Furthermore, no executions have been carried out by California since 2006, when a moratorium was placed on the system in order to reevaluate the facilities and lethal injection procedures. The bottom line is that California’s current death penalty system is far too complicated, costly and time consuming.

I agree with Carney insomuch that California’s current death penalty system is seriously flawed. How could the punishment of a death penalty be a deterrent to crime when the criminal has a better chance of dying from natural causes than lethal injection? California is spending far too much money on deciding whether we should kill criminals when we could be spending money on education or health. Families’ members that feel a sense of justice when a murderer is sentenced to death row will never have peace of mind knowing that the murder may outlive them. California needs to change the system before another criminal is sentenced to a flawed system.

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