A Death Penalty Advocate’s Sad Argument

July 17, 2015

The modern American death penalty has few advocates as aggressive and outspoken as Dale Cox. He is the acting district attorney of Caddo Parish, La., a poor region in one of the nation’s poorest states. From 2010 to 2014, prosecutors in Caddo Parish won more death sentences per capita than anywhere else in the country.

In March Mr. Cox drew national news coverage for his response to a former colleague’s public apology for putting a man on death row who later turned out to be innocent. “I think we need to kill more people,” Mr. Cox said.

The purpose of the death penalty, he has said repeatedly, is not to deter crime but to exact revenge. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” he told The New York Times.

He has denied that the death penalty is racist or arbitrary, even though Caddo Parish, like most places in the country, applies it disproportionately in cases involving black defendants.

His concern about the method of execution is whether it inflicts enough pain. In a recent case of a man sentenced to death for suffocating his 1-year-old son, Mr. Cox was upset that lethal injection would be used. The convict, he said, “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies

But on July 14, Mr. Cox — who took over as top prosecutor when his boss died suddenly in April — announced that he would not run for election in the fall, as he had originally planned.

His reasoning? Beyond the usual comment that the media attention was a distraction, he said, “I have come to believe that my position on the death penalty is a minority position among the members of this community.”

It was an interesting admission for several reasons, not least of which is that Mr. Cox himself used to be opposed to capital punishment. Raised Catholic and educated in a Jesuit school, he left an earlier job in the district attorney’s office because of his discomfort with such cases, according to a New Yorker profile of Mr. Cox published this month.

Over the years he changed his mind, he explained, in reaction to the cases of unspeakable brutality that he was exposed to as a prosecutor. “The nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you,” Mr. Cox told The Times, saying also that he now takes medicine for depression.

It is easy to caricature Mr. Cox as little more than the angry, unrepentant face of vengeance behind America’s ever-narrowing campaign of state-sponsored killing. But it is important to listen closely to what he is saying about his job, which subjects those who do it to daily trauma and cruelty on a level most people never experience.

And that is another reason the death penalty must end: It dehumanizes not just those put to death, but everyone involved in the process — from the prosecutors who seek it to the juries who impose it and the executioners who carry it out.

For some on death row, vindication comes too late By OSCAR EASON JR.

March 14, 2014

Immediately following Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of his moratorium on the death penalty, cheers could be heard in certain African-American communities throughout the state and elsewhere.

That should have surprised few, considering the statistics on who is being sentenced to occupy space on death rows these days. Nationally, 470 African Americans have been executed since 1976 compared to 767 whites — although African Americans are only 13 percent of the nation’s population. Sixty-six whites and seven African Americans have been executed in Washington; the African-American population in this state reached 3.9 percent only in recent decades.


Racial discrimination remains a dominant feature of criminal justice in the United States. The process of having biased death sentences handed down in the criminal justice system may not always be the fault of sentencing officials; the outcome involves arresting officers, the compiling and arranging of factual evidence by prosecuting attorneys, and jury selection, all of which are required before a judgment is reached.


People of color continue to be excluded from jury service in our state because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases. The jury-selection process has been a major concern in Washington’s African-American community for decades owing to how jurors are selected and the fact that race in trials is often a factor — consciously or unconsciously.


Most juries hearing capital cases where African Americans are involved have few or no African Americans. As the case moves along a path toward the judge, there are unlimited opportunities for biases. Mandatory sentencing may also enter into the equation in some states.


Regardless of whether Inslee’s moratorium was a wise political decision, claims that the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent have not been proven. This experiment is flawed, inhuman and costly.


An increasing number of states have already legally ended executions, with others likely to follow this year. Human lives are at stake, and one would think that any process holding such high risks and vulnerabilities would be completely abolished in modern society.


Too many people found guilty of capital crimes and placed on death row in the last decade were later found to have been wrongly convicted. Others have been exonerated posthumously. Some were sentenced to death and had their sentences overturned by acquittal or pardon.


Just this week, Louisiana freed Glenn Ford, a man who had spent nearly 26 years on death row. An all-white jury convicted him for a murder the state now says he did not commit.


One who was not so fortunate was Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American man convicted of and executed for the murder of a police officer Savannah, Ga., though there was ample evidence presented to prove his innocence. The NAACP’s struggle to save him failed. We must work to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated here in Washington. Inslee’s moratorium provides that guarantee.

Oscar Eason Jr. is chairman of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs.

USA: The death penalty has become a game of chess

Americans have developed a nearly insatiable appetite for morbid details about crime, as any number of docudramas, Netflix series and Hollywood movies attest.

There is 1 notable exception: executions. Here, we’d just rather not know too much about current practices. Better to just think of prisoners quietly going to sleep, permanently.

The blind eye we turn to techniques of execution is giving cover to disturbing changes with lethal injection. The drugs that have traditionally been used to create the deadly “cocktail” administered to the condemned are becoming harder to get. Major manufacturers are declining to supply them for executions, and that has led states to seek other options.

That raises questions about how effective the lethal drugs will be. At least 1 execution appears to have been botched. In January, an inmate in Ohio was seen gasping for more than 10 minutes during his execution. He took 25 minutes to die. The state had infused him with a new cocktail of drugs not previously used in executions.

States have been forced to turn to relatively lightly regulated “compounding pharmacies,” companies that manufacture drugs usually for specific patient uses. And they’d rather you not ask for details. Death row inmates and their attorneys, on the other hand, are keenly interested in how an approaching execution is going to be carried out. Will it be humane and painless or cruel and unusual?

Lawyers for Herbert Smulls, a convicted murderer in Missouri, challenged the compound drug he was due to be given, but the Supreme Court overturned his stay of execution. A district court had ruled that Missouri had made it “impossible” for Smulls “to discover the information necessary to meet his burden.” In other words, he was condemned to die and there was nothing that attorneys could do because of the secrecy.

Smulls was executed Wednesday.

Missouri, which has put 3 men to death in 3 months, continues shrouding significant details about where the drugs are manufactured and tested. In December, a judge at the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals wrote a scathing ruling terming Missouri’s actions as “using shadow pharmacies hidden behind the hangman’s hood.”

States have long taken measures to protect the identities of guards and medical personnel directly involved with carrying out death penalty convictions. That is a sensible protection. But Missouri claims the pharmacy and the testing lab providing the drugs are also part of the unnamed “execution team.”

That’s a stretch. And the reasoning is less about protecting the firm and more about protecting the state’s death penalty from scrutiny.

The states really are in a bind. European manufacturers no longer want to be involved in the U.S. market for killing people. So they have cut off exports of their products to U.S. prisons.

First, sodium thiopental, a key to a long-used lethal injection cocktail became unavailable. Next, the anesthetic propofol was no longer available. At one point, Missouri was in a rush to use up its supply before the supply reached its expiration date.

Next, the state decided to switch to pentobarbital. So, along with many of the more than 30 states that have the death penalty, Missouri is jumping to find new drugs, chasing down new ways to manufacture them.

Information emerged that at least some of Missouri’s lethal drug supply was tested by an Oklahoma analytical lab that had approved medicine from a Massachusetts pharmacy responsible for a meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people.

For those who glibly see no problem here, remember that the U.S. Constitution protects its citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment.” But attorneys for death row inmates are finding they can’t legally test whether a new compounded drug meets that standard because key information is being withheld. Besides, we citizens have a right to know how the death penalty is carried out.

All of this adds to the growing case against the death penalty, showing it as a costly and irrational part of the criminal justice system. We know the threat of it is not a deterrent. We know it is far more costly to litigate than seeking sentences for life with no parole. We know extensive appeals are excruciating for the families of murder victims. And we know that some of society’s most unrepentant, violent killers somehow escape it.

And now we’ve got states going to extremes to find the drugs – and hide information about how they got then – just to continue the killing.

ABOUT THE WRITER Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star

(source: Fresno Bee) 


The death penalty, and a passion for pain

Giving full satisfaction to popular sadism always risked undercutting public support, but now politicians feel comfortable calling for a return to harsher methods.

States that kill tell us, in their scientific-technical language, that the death penalty is an unfortunate but strictly necessary activity, always used as a last resort and always restrained by mercy. The precise method of killing is itself a matter of pained, moral exactitude. The question is always how to deter as much brutality as possible, with as little brutality as possible.

So, a question: if you wrap a ligature around someone’s throat and tighten it until it breaks their neck or they choke to death, what is the deterrent effect of this compared with, say, tying them by the neck to a crane and then jerking them violently upward? How many fewer murderers and rapists would there be if we injected convicts with poison, as opposed to gassing or electrocuting them? For if you take states at their word, the sheer variation in both the use and method of the death penalty over time and place necessarily gives rise to such mind-boggling calculations.

For a few decades, this controversy has been moot in the United States. Those states in the union that operated the death penalty had abandoned the traditionally harsher methods of killing, such as electrocution or gassing. The long, agonising deaths associated with these methods had been replaced by superficially serene ones, effected by the seemingly precise method of poisonous injections. Now, as the availability and effectiveness of these drugs is in question, 6 states are attempting to bypass controversy by bringing back the firing squad, the gas chamber or the electric chair.

There are certain ironies here. Electrocution was itself once considered the gentle, civilised method of killing in the US. After centuries of hanging people in public squares, the American state was centralising and consolidating its power. Its ability to contain violent disobedience was expanding dramatically. By and large, it was less threatened by criminal disobedience than by the potential for unruliness among witnesses to such spectacles. It began to use the death penalty less, and in more confined settings, with fewer witnesses.

This did not mean that the element of sadism, which is essential to the social meaning of the death penalty, had been expunged. As a ritual, it effectively harnesses the desire to see satisfaction in pain and humiliation, and as such legitimises the state’s ultimate authority. That is why witness must be made, especially by the grieving relatives of a murder victim, for whom the killing of the convict is apparently the only route to “closure”.

The death penalty is linked to a wider array of sadistic punishment practices – “life-trashing” sentences, and “shame” penalties – which in the US are part of the management of a racial order, in which black people are seen as the potential nemesis of civilisation itself. The merest hint of a breach of their symbolic status has often been sufficient to produce an outburst of repressive violence. In this respect, it is notable that public killings mainly – although far from exclusively – persisted in the southern states, where political authority was weaker and more decentralised, and where racial terror was the dominant means of political control. Yet, while the US started to shift toward less spectacular forms of execution, they were not less public, not less symbolic, and certainly not less racially charged, as a result – until an effective moratorium on the penalty which lasted from 1960 to 1976.

It is telling, perhaps, that the basis of the current recourse to more traditionally brutal forms is an “economic” rationale – what can be done at least cost to the state, avoiding expensive legal challenges. The prosecution of offenders and the pursuit of the death penalty is always a costly and time-consuming process. This is one reason why, as Sister Helen Prejean wrote, African Americans and Hispanics not only do not expect the district attorney’s office to pursue the death penalty when a loved one is killed, but rarely expect even a prosecution.

However, the death penalty today is precisely grounded in an “economic” rationality. The end of the supreme court’s ban on it in 1976 corresponded to the beginnings of a political shift in the direction of neoliberalism. The neoliberals, despite their anti-statist rhetoric, were in fact advocates of a strong, authoritarian state, particularly in order to protect property rights and curb “market bypassing”. Of course, in its application it continued to be “selective” in favour of killing African American suspects. However, the legitimacy of state killing for some was at least partially secured by the introduction of the lethal injection in 1982, which was vaunted as a humane means of death. Subsequently, Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act enabled a drastic escalation in the use of the death penalty.

Yet, while American states – above all, Texas – are killing more people at a faster rate, supporters of the death penalty remain unhappy. It is precisely this “civilising” process – the slow, premeditated legal planning that must go into killing – that outrages them. The government is fighting evil, with one hand tied behind its back: let the forces of order do their work without hindrance and put an end to the chaos. Once the discussion is cast in terms of such moral absolutes, the evidence is that any potential wider costs of the death penalty are as superfluous as “collateral damage” in a war. Unfortunate, but of no real interest. The libidinal energies invested in killing overwhelm any such objections.

This is the bind that the American state has always been in over the death penalty. The regular application of lethal force serves a vital political purpose; but giving full satisfaction to popular sadism has always risked undercutting broad public support for it. If American politicians are now unembarrassed to call for a return to harsher methods of killing, this signals that the bind is loosening and that politics is tilting in favour of a renewed authoritarian statism – inevitably mandated by racism.

“Deterrence” in this sense is entirely symbolic; what is deterred by the binding of popular sadism to state bureaucratic processes is any questioning of the state’s claim to the final say over life and death.

(source: The Guardian) 

Why do we keep executing people? By Thomas Cahill, Special to CNN

June 25, 2013

Editor’s note: Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History series, which begins with “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” Volume VI in the series, “Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World,” will be published at the end of October. He has also written “A Saint on Death Row” about his friend Dominique Green, who was executed by the state of Texas.


(CNN) — Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as distant a memory as burning heretics at the stake and stoning adulterers — at least throughout the civilized world. No country that employs the death penalty can be admitted to the European Union, and the practice dwindles daily.


But despite the growing worldwide revulsion against this lethal form of punishment, Texas and a handful of other states continue to take their places among such paragons as North Korea, China, Yemen and Iran in the club of those who attempt to administer the death penalty as a form of “justice.”


Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill


Indeed, Texas is way ahead of all other states in the administering of such justice. At the end of this month, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, the state is expected — if all appeals fail — to celebrate its 500th judicial killing since our Supreme Court in 1976 reinstated the death penalty as a legitimate form of “justice,” despite the fact that an earlier court had determined that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment.”


Death row diary offers a rare glimpse into a morbid world


No one doubts that the woman who is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, Kimberly McCarthy, is guilty of the 1997 murder of her neighbor, a 71-year-old woman and a retired college professor. Although we know that upwards of 10% of all death row prisoners are later exonerated for the crimes for which they have been convicted, Kimberly McCarthy will not be one of them. So, why shouldn’t we kill her?


For the same reason Warden R.F. Coleman gave to reporters on February 8, 1924, the day the official Texas Death House was inaugurated with the electrocution of five African-American men. Said Coleman then, “It just couldn’t be done, boys. A warden can’t be a warden and a killer, too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.”


Warden Coleman resigned rather than pull the switch. Sadly, so many others have failed in the many years since then to follow his heroic example.

And let’s not equivocate: Often, and in every age, doing the right thing requires heroism.


Kimberly McCarthy is a black woman. Black people are disproportionately represented on death row, as are blacks imprisoned throughout this country. Many would say (at least in a whisper) that black people are more prone to crime and violence than are white people.


But as a historian, I know that there was a time, long ago, when my people — Irish-Americans — were deemed to be more prone to crime and violence than were others. This was in the years after the potato famines of the 19th century that brought so many desperately poor Irish people to these shores.


The police in New York City became so inured to arresting Irishmen that they began to call the van they threw the arrestees into “the Paddy Wagon,” a name that has adhered to that vehicle ever since.


But who today would care (or dare) to make a case for exceptional Irish criminality? The immigrating Irish were more prone to criminality not because of some genetic inheritance, but because they were so very poor, so neglected, so abandoned. When I see a vagrant today, snoring on a park bench, clothed in rags and stinking, I think to myself: Whatever happened to this guy, whatever the history that dropped him on this park bench, no one loved him enough when he was a child.


His parents, if he had parents, were too taken up with the pain of living, with the struggle for survival, with their own hideous fears, to tend to him adequately, if at all. No one came to rescue this child, give him enough to eat, adequate shelter, a caring environment — the love that everyone needs in order to grow.


We — the larger society — have a profound obligation to such people, an obligation we have largely ignored. Many other societies in the Western world devote considerable resources to keeping poor children (and their parents) from despair. As an American friend of mine who lives in Denmark says: “In Denmark we tax the rich, but everyone is comfortable.”


Not everyone is comfortable in the United States. Many children live below the poverty line, millions of them without enough food or adequate shelter and with almost no attention to their educational needs. As for their emotional needs, are you kidding me?


If Texas would pay attention to the needs of all its children, if we would all do the same for all our children, if we would only admit that every child needs to be loved and that we are all obliged to help ensure this outcome, our world would change overnight. We would certainly not need our electric chairs and nooses and lethal injections. We could then say what the poet-priest John Donne said as long ago as 1623, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”


Any man’s death. Any woman’s death. Any child’s despair.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Does The Death Penalty Provide ‘Closure’ to Victim’s Families? Three Perspectives

October 18, 2012 http://blogs.kqed.org

This coming election Californians will decide on Proposition 34, which would outlaw the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would also direct $30 million a year for three years to investigate unsolved rape and murder cases.

The measure is the latest chapter in a seesaw legal and political dispute over capital punishment that stretches back 50 years in California.

But setting aside the main argument of the “Yes on 34″ camp, that the billions of dollars spent on the death penalty could better be used to solve crimes; and “No on 34″ backers, that the death penalty process could be made more efficient and cheaper, there’s another issue that often comes up in the overall debate.

Many supporters of the death penalty say it is the only fair societal consequence for the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and that it gives victims’ families a sense of closure. Scott Shafer has been following this question around the death penalty for more than a dozen years, and he frequently addresses the question of closure in his reporting.

Earlier this year, Shafer interviewed Mark Klaas, father of Polly Klaas — the 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her Petaluma home and murdered by Richard Allen Davis. Klaas has long been an advocate of the death penalty and opposes Prop. 34. He told Shafer that families say witnessing the execution of the perpetrator of a crime against a family member has helped them.

Mark Klaas: It does make a difference. It’s about carrying out the law. It’s about the final judgment. Those individuals I’ve talked to -– family members who have witnessed executions — are grateful for the experience, sad that it had to come to that, but satisfied that justice has been fulfilled.

Scott Shafer: What do you mean they’re sad it had to come to that?

Mark Klaas: Well the taking of a life is not something that should ever be looked upon lightly. And nobody finds great joy in it, including the families of murder victims. And they know this better than anyone else. But it is the law, and it is a final judgment…

I believe [Davis’] execution would bring closure to my daughter. She is the one that he contemplates as he acts out in his prison cell. It’s not going to change my life one way or the other. But I don’t invest a lot of time or energy in thinking about Richard Allen Davis. He’s dominated my family’s life quite enough as it is. I’m content to see him at least be on death row and know that at some point he may have to face that final judgment.

As warden at San Quentin Prison, home of California’s only death row for men, Jeanne Woodford presided over four executions. She says it’s a “natural reaction,” to want someone who harmed a loved one to die, but says she thinks that closure does not come to pass for families. Shafer explored this question with her in an interview he conducted late last year. Woodford told him:

People wait years for an execution that may or may not happen. People come to the prison thinking that the execution will somehow bring closure to them. I’ve just never had someone who that’s happened to.

In fact, I’ve had reporters tell me that family members told them a month or two after the execution that they regretted having been involved in the process.

Then there’s the story of Gayle Orr, whom Shafer interviewed 10 years ago. In 1980 Orr’s 19-year-old daughter was stabbed and killed near Auburn. Her daughter’s murderer was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Orr entered what she calls a “period of darkness” during which she felt isolated and consumed with rage.

Eventually she started attending and taking classes at church, where a common topic was forgiveness. A classmate suggested that Orr should forgive her daughter’s murderer, which at first infuriated her  but ultimately prompted her to write a letter of forgiveness to her daughter’s killer.

“And the instant that I put that letter in the mailbox,” she told Shafer in that 2002 interview and confirmed in a phone call last week, “all the anger, all the rage, all the darkness that I’ve been carrying around, all the ugliness I’ve been carrying around in my body for 12 long years, instantly was gone. Just gone. And in its place I was filled with this sense of joy and love. And I was truly in a state of grace, simply from offering forgiveness to another human being.”

It’s now been 20 years since Orr mailed that letter. Since then she has created a foundation in her daughter’s name, dedicated to forgiveness and a peaceful world. Orr changed her name to “Aba Gayle,” which she says means “beloved of the Father,” and she is “totally and absolutely opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances.”

She believes that carrying anger and rage toward another person perpetuates one’s sense of being a victim. “Being a victim is a choice,” she says “and I have chosen not to be a victim any longer. … Not only did I heal myself, I healed my whole family. When you’re filled with rage, you can’t be a wife, you can’t be a mother, so healing that rage does so much benefit, not just to me, but to everyone around me.”

Aba Gayle said she still grieves for her daughter, and while she doesn’t believe her daughter’s murderer should be executed, she believes he should spend his life in prison.

CALIFORNIA – Kill the death penalty

October 18, 2012 http://www.newsreview.com/

In 1978, a man named Ron Briggs ran the campaign for Proposition 7, which proposed to expand California’s death penalty law to make it among the toughest in the country. Briggs was the son of John Briggs, a Republican state senator who strongly supported the measure. It was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor. The Briggs Initiative, as it was called, passed resoundingly.

Since then Ron Briggs and Heller have had a change of heart. Today they are campaigning vigorously on behalf of Proposition 34, the SAFE California initiative that would end the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole.

Their goal with Proposition 7, Briggs has written, was to broaden the murder categories eligible for the death penalty and “give prosecutors better tools for meting out just punishments” and warn “all California evildoers that the state would deliver swift and final justice.”

They now realize, however, that it didn’t work. There were 300 people on death row in 1978; today there are more than 720. Only 13 death row prisoners have been executed since their measure passed—far more have died of natural causes—and the state has spent $4 billion trying to enforce capital punishment. Eliminating it could save $183 million annually.

Opponents of Proposition 34 argue that it forgoes justice in order to save money. But where’s the justice? As Briggs writes, it’s “a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers.” Meanwhile, the families of victims suffer because they’re forced over and over to face the alleged murderer in a series of mandated appeals that, because of a shortage of judges and public defenders, can take decades to exhaust.

Opponents of Proposition 34 also argue that the death penalty deters crime, but study after study shows that’s simply not true. States without the death penalty have murder rates similar to, and sometimes lower than, those of states with capital punishment.

In addition, the death penalty is applied in a biased manner. Proportionally, blacks are sentenced to death far more often than whites, especially when the victim is white.

Finally, there’s the matter of innocence. DNA testing has exonerated more than 2,000 prisoners, including many on death row. It’s a virtual certainty that some innocent people have been executed. Death is a punishment that cannot be reversed.

For all of these reasons, it’s time to abolish the death penalty in California. Vote yes on Proposition 34.


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

October 14, 2012 http://www.redding.com

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

There’s no real argument for the death penalty by James Varney “opinion”

October 13, 2012 http://www.nola.com/

Three stories — or, more accurately, two stories and a column — have led to thoughts about that ever contentious issue, the death penalty.

The first was a justice corkscrew at Tulane and Broad detailed by reporter John Simerman, a tale of shifting heroes and villains. In it, a rapist was briefly represented by the Innocence Project, a prominent arm of the anti-death penalty movement that has a strong case — namely, not every person on death row is guilty. Yet for reasons I can’t fully understand, I don’t find that reason to dispose of the death penalty. In part, this view may be colored by the Innocence Project’s paladin, Gary Scheck, who proclaims DNA evidence infallible. Which it may be, unless the blood of two murder victims is splattered all over O.J. Simpson’s car and house, in which case the DNA was planted or contaminated, as Scheck argued while springing The Juice.

I could have sworn O.J. did it, but that’s what high-priced defense lawyers do, I suppose, and it’s true Scheck’s work elsewhere has freed some innocent men from a living hell on death row.

In fact, the column in question is just that sort of case. Damon Thibodeaux was sent to Angola’s death row for raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl under the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1996. Problem was, Thibodeaux didn’t do the crime and the Innocence Project helped prove it. Consequently, Thibodeaux was freed last month, and Denny LeBoeuf, formerly of the Death Penalty Resource Center in New Orleans, penned an op-ed about it for The Times-Picayune.

Thibodeaux’s case hinged on a bogus confession, a thing LeBoeuf pointed out talented law enforcement officers constantly guard against. Yet here we have a man — not guilty — dreading the lethal needles the state planned to plunge into his veins. He has escaped the jaws of death, which is all to the good, and whether one finds that alone reason to halt executions, there is no gainsaying the argument in favor of them is now diminished.

Thibodeaux can’t be made whole any more than the family of the girl who was killed, but does the death penalty’s existence mean similar tragedies won’t be visited on others? Here we turn to the death penalty’s supposed deterrent properties.

And here we turn to the other recent story, reporter Claire Galofaro’s magisterial three-part tale of the men accused of gunning down two St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies and wounding two more. These alleged warped souls floated across the landscape from Nebraska to Louisiana like modern Charles Starkweathers, apparently willing, even eager, to kill.

Was the death penalty any sort of deterrent to these seething misfits? Has the fear of the death penalty — a sentence quite real in New Orleans and Louisiana — in any way crimped the appalling violence that sends so many New Orleanians to an early grave?

Well, it may have — that’s a hard one to gauge — but if it has, the impact has been marginal at best. The argument in favor of execution shrinks again.

So we appear to have but one plank left in favor of executions: the succor it may provide crime victims’ survivors. Here most of us, thankfully, are at sea because thus far we’ve been spared that nightmare.

That’s always seemed one of the best arguments in favor of execution while simultaneously the most disquieting. Where does the state — why does the state — become an instrument of retribution? There are Biblical passages supporting the death penalty as a legal recourse, but are these life and death matters not better left in God’s hands? Doesn’t the death penalty then skirt dangerously close to revenge killing, a thing civilized society should shun?

I don’t presume to speak for victims’ families, but years of covering capital cases and witnessing two executions at Angola have shown me that seeking a death for a death is not uniform among them. The quality of their mercy is an awesome, humbling thing, and one it seems to me should be embraced.

So what do we have: Guilty? Not always. Deterrent? Unlikely. Morally? Dubious. LeBoeuf is correct: the death penalty should be abolished.


James Varney can be reached at jvarney@nola.com.