When I was an 8th grader at Britton Middle School, I joined the debate team. Back then there was an annual competition against Murphy Middle School and that year we debated the death penalty.
In 27 years the arguments against it haven’t changed. I remember as I was preparing for the debate, looking at statistics on deterrence and financial feasibility, my father coming into my room and offering me his own statistic – “100% of executed killers, will never kill again.”
Undeniably true, but obviously a little tongue-in-cheek. But to this day my father’s somewhat jocular statistic focuses on one thing that the arguments against the death penalty consistently ignore – that for some crimes, there is no more appropriate punishment than death.
Proposition 34 advocates will try to focus your attention on the fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder, and therefore, we should abolish it. Or that it’s too expensive compared to life in prison, and therefore, a waste of money. Go ahead and accept these arguments as the truth. My answer to them is this – so what?
This is not to be dismissive of problems with the system and there are plenty. But, at what point was it decided that the most important purpose of punishing heartless killers was to deter other people from doing so? And, in a state where our dysfunctional legislature presides over never-ending budget deficits, borrowing money to fund $60 billion dollar high speed trains we can’t afford, not to mention the absurd public employee union pensions badly in need of reform, why is it that in administering justice – a clearly legitimate function of government that no one would deny – that this is where we should take our stand and eliminate the entire system in the name of frugality?
They offer a false rubric upon which to measure the efficiency of the system while ignoring the actual purpose that it ultimately achieves – to administer the only punishment that fits the crime.
Of course, there are legitimate problems with the system. The expense and time it takes to administer the death penalty cannot be denied. A recent survey of 50 of the 220 condemned prisoners in California revealed that 47 of them were against Prop 34 because it would eliminate their ability to get taxpayer funded counsel to file their appeals. Any condemned man should be allowed a reasonable opportunity to appeal his case. But ridiculous challenges, like the recent Ohio prisoner who appealed that he was too fat to be put to death, have to be curbed.
The development of DNA technology provides the state the ability to safeguard against an innocent man being put to death, and it should be used more regularly and as a prerequisite to confirm a death sentence. But, rather than try to address the problems of the system, Prop 34 sheepishly admits defeat and eliminates the system altogether. The victims and their families deserve more from us. They deserve a better solution.
At its core Prop 34 is predicated on a belief that life in prison is a fit enough punishment for our worst killers. But, picture Prop 34 changing Richard Allen Davis’ death sentence into life without parole.
Davis is the repugnant animal who kidnapped, raped, and strangled 12-year-old Polly Klaas, and then taunted her family in open court. He’s probably already learned to adapt and finds a way to get through each day, maybe even comes to look forward to and enjoy a few things – reading a book, perhaps getting to watch TV. And, don’t forget visits from his family, sometimes even getting physical contact with a loved one.
Can you really tell Mr. Klaas, that because the death penalty is not a deterrent, or because it costs more, that this is justice for his daughter’s killer? I couldn’t. Because every book he enjoys, or movie he gets to lose himself in, and every comforting touch he feels from a family visit, is one more than Polly and her family will ever get to enjoy. That is not justice.
And we should demand better, because that is unacceptable.
This is the first of an every-other week column from Jeff Nunes who is an attorney at Rusconi, Foster & Thomas, APC in Morgan Hill. He is a graduate of Live Oak High School and lives in Morgan Hill with his wife and two children.