Death on the November ballot

Graphic by Irin Son

In November, California voters will consider a ballot measure titled the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act,” also referred to as the SAFE California Act.  This measure places a ban on the death penalty and claims a savings of $100 million annually – the result of a reduction in costs associated with detention, the appeal process and the sustenance of death row inmates.  However, much more than money will be considered in the debates surrounding this measure in the months to come.  Voters will take into account issues like deterrence, closure for victims and social justice; though none of these arguments support the execution of an innocent person.

Since 1993, seventeen convicted criminals have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States. These individuals served a combined 209 years in prison – including 187 years on death row – for crimes they did not commit.  They were robbed of their lives and freedom and released without recompense for the wrong they suffered.  There is no closure for these individuals, no hint of justice. They will forever live in the memory of a prison cell with death lingering in the distance.  They were falsely accused, convicted and sentenced to die, and this is an indication that our criminal justice system is not without flaws.  But they believe they are fortunate, because not all death row inmates are allowed to have DNA evidence considered on appeal.

Such was the case for Texan, Claude Jones, convicted of capital murder in 1990 with a single strand of hair – proof of his guilt, though it was not based on DNA evidence, because DNA testing of hair follicles had not been developed.  This changed prior to his execution, and requests for DNA testing flooded the governor’s office; however, Governor George W. Bush denied them.  Claude Jones was executed Dec. 7, 2000.  Ten years following his death his hair was finally tested, and it proved him innocent – a position from which he never wavered. Imagine for a moment a day in his life; you are sitting in your cell on death row, innocent and awaiting execution for something you did not do.  One cannot deny the significance of life and justice in these matters; it is what we, as voters, must consider in November.  It is the other side of the death penalty.

A recent study destroyed all arguments relating to the notion of deterrence. The National Research Council (an expert panel on science, engineering and medicine created by Congress) identified serious flaws in previous studies claiming that the death penalty serves as deterrence to crime as well as studies claiming the death penalty does nothing to deter crime.  The report concluded, “These intrinsic shortcomings severely limit what can be learned from the existing research.”  Consequently, deterrence is not a legitimate argument nor is it supported by scientific research, as many once believed it to be.

Then there is the issue of closure for the victims. Closure for some victims comes with the arrest, conviction and life sentence of the guilty. Other victims require “an eye for an eye” and seek the death penalty as a means of closure. There should be no debate that crimes against humanity that carry the death penalty are heinous and despicable. California voters have voiced moral outrage in this regard, increasing death penalty crimes from 12 to 39 since 2000.   However, the suffering and loss for loved ones―family and friends, in cases of murder―does not end with the execution of the guilty, but suffering for the guilty ends with their execution.  Therefore, closure appears to be something argued but not proven, given that many victims seeking it vis-à-vis execution continue to mourn and keep dear the memory and loss of their loved ones.  There never is true closure, and to suggest it exists in the execution of a human being is to rely on a need to allay pain and moral outrage in a vengeful way.

Some argue that if humanity is to survive and prosper, society’s moral outrage must demand justice in the form of the death penalty.  But the death of the guilty does not advance humanity, and if it is cost that plagues our world of justice then why spend more than the price of a bullet?  The well intended will find themselves caught between doing that which is humane and that which is just in November, but they must never forget the innocent on both sides of this equation: the Claude Jones’ of the world, for example.

Deterrence is a non-issue, and closure, though difficult to overcome, is an illusion created by emotional outrage. We have been taught to believe that justice is an “eye for an eye,” but times have changed, and our system of justice has evolved.  And yet, however evolved our justice system may appear, we must never lose sight of the fact that the rules that govern our criminal courts address evidence; it is not what is true, but what can be proven that matters.  An individual may commit murder with malice aforethought, but if the evidence does not support murder in the 1st degree, the prosecutor will pursue a lesser included offense; it is the evidence that determines the crime, not the truth.  Truth is hoped for, but it does not drive action in a court of law.

Our system of justice is flawed, and as a result innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death.  Those that shape the laws claim that such cases are exceptions and not the rule, but one innocent life is worth a position that provides an opportunity for truth; for truth is what we must strive for as a people.  Ultimately, our system of justice is not intended for revenge, and the death penalty has not been proven a deterrent.  Our justice system is meant to keep society safe, but our safety and humanity are not advanced with the execution of the guilty, and certainly not with the execution of the innocent.

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