CALIFORNIA -Loretta Carrico Russell: Two sisters murdered, but I’m against death penalty

October 14, 2012

Californians will decide this November whether or not the death penalty dies by a vote of the people. Supporters of Savings Accountability Full Enforcement California Act or S.A.F.E. California, an anti-death penalty group, successfully gathered more than a half-million signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Being an opponent of the death penalty did not come easily to me. My conviction is motivated by 40 years of dealing with this emotional issue on a deeply personal level. Initially, I was in favor of the death penalty. I wanted revenge for my sisters. Karen was 21 when she was murdered by her husband. Her death was deemed an accidental beating.

Twenty years later, my sister Irene was murdered by her husband for leaving him.

Irene’s murder would have been a capital offense, according to the judge, had the accused not turned over state’s evidence. How could a small piece of rope used in the hog-tying strangulation of my sister mitigate the horrific torture that led to her death?

The killer told police where he hid the rope and for that he now lives in Solano prison.  He was given a life sentence. At the time, I wanted both killers to suffer the same fate my sisters had, and to endure the physical and psychological terror that comes from knowing someone is ending your life.

Despite its liberal reputation, California has the unfortunate distinction of having the nation’s largest death row, housing 20 percent of all such inmates in the U.S. Los Angeles County alone has the most death row convicts, more than the entire state of Texas.

However, the reality of the death penalty in California is different from the hype. In the 33 years since its reinstatement, the state has executed 13 people or 1 percent of its death row population.

Some begrudge the price of providing inmates with “three hots and a cot.” But the cost of incarceration is relatively cheap compared with the alternative of having criminals on the streets or the cost of a lengthy appeals process.

We can’t have it both ways: lock them up and then complain about the cost of incarceration. Since the state re-established the death penalty in 1978, it has spent $4 billion on death penalty cases.

This money could be better spent on law enforcement and in preventive measures, such as an improved domestic violence detection and treatment. And the cost does not factor in the lives of those executed and later found to be innocent.

Unlike most people, for me the death penalty doesn’t come from a particular political bent, but a selfish one. The death penalty is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue, but a family one. It’s the victim’s family who are forced to relive the loss of their loved one each time the case is revisited in court.

A life sentence and the death penalty aren’t much different for the victim’s family. In both cases, the family has to relive the nightmare each time the killer gets another day in court, whether on appeal or a bid for parole.

The toll this process takes on a family member’s physical and mental health is incalculable. For years I lived with the corrosive anger of wanting revenge, before realizing I was allowing myself to continue to be victimized.

Knowing the killer is off the streets and not able to harm another was enough for me to put the trauma and pain of losing a sister into its proper perspective and move forward in life.

Not all murders are created equal, but those convicted of murder as heinous as Irene’s, the murders that would otherwise merit the death penalty, should be sentenced to prison with absolutely no possibility of parole, unless irrefutable evidence surfaces warranting a new trial.

Initially given 25 years to life, Irene’s killer is coming up for parole for the second time this December. He declined his first parole hearing, thinking he had a better chance at his second one.

He spent the last three years performing the tasks he was supposed to do all along to show the parole board that he has changed. One task was to write a letter of apology to the victim’s family.

It took him a staggering 24 years to send a letter, and it was full of excuses rather than remorse for what he’d done. I will be there at his parole hearing to remind him and the board of what he did to my sister, and the grave danger he poses to other, unsuspecting women.

In November, my vote will be to have California join the other 17 states that have already banned the death penalty. Firm and fair incarceration for those convicted is what I seek.

I want the resources now spent on the lengthy death penalty appeals process used to reduce the chances that other Californians will suffer as Irene did, and, ultimately, as my family did.

I speak only for myself, but my hope is that when you’re voting on this measure you will consider the families who have had to repeatedly relive the agony of losing their loved one and vote to end the California death penalty.


Loretta Carrico Russell lives in Round Montain

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