Life or Death

Hot button issues…

They are everywhere, it seems. You can’t swing a cat without knocking over someone’s hot button issue. And, nine times out of ten it involves, religion, economics, race or politics. I tend to avoid conversations about any of these social land mines because they are so deep in the fabric who we are, how we “perceive” and “believe” the world around us. There is one subject binds all four together — the Death Penalty. Now that’s a hot button issue.


Years ago, I worked in the criminal justice system and experienced the vitriol spewed by both sides of the death penalty debate. Abolitionist nuns calling it state sponsored murder and the ultra extremists on the other end of the spectrum calling it justice. Now, I’ve considered myself a moderately right-leaning guy. In fact, a dozen years ago I was in a meeting in the Oakland City Hall, with then Mayor Jerry Brown, discussing a public safety program for the city. During our chat he called me “A nice, conservative young man.” I took that as a compliment, whether he meant it as one, might be up for debate. The point is I am conservative, I voted to support the death penalty a few times as it came up on the ballot at election time and I now find my support for the issue wavering.

Have I turned liberal? Nah, my stance on the death penalty is more a factor of the whole system being broken. I’m primarily referring to California here, but the death penalty system in this state might be beyond repair. It’s more than not following through with the execution of 700-plus inmates on death row.

It seems as if every single murder is painted with the “capital crime” brush. Prosecutors making a tough on crime label for themselves? Perhaps. A bargaining chip to force a plea bargain? Maybe. The death penalty is thrown around so often that it has lost its meaning. Murder is a terrible, horrific crime, don’t get me wrong, but not all of them rise to the level of “Special Circumstances” warranting the ultimate punishment.

If the death penalty once created a deterrence factor, preventing crime for fear of being executed, it no longer holds that threat. It’s become common and if sentenced to death, it won’t happen. There have been more deaths of condemned inmates from natural causes than executions in the past fifteen years. I was involved with one case where a man was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and later had that penalty overturned to a life sentence. He was paroled on that “Life” term and convicted of another first degree murder a few years later. So where’s the deterrence?

it's only a matter of time

it’s only a matter of time?

Some of the delay is inevitable with the legal processes grinding out appeals and requests for new trials on some procedural issue. When the outcome is taking someone’s life, you’d better be damned sure your got all the facts right. There seem to be an increasing number of stories about inmates released from prison after DNA evidence exonerates them. How do you balance the need for certainty with the need for carrying out a lawful sentence? That’s a tough one.

Some victims’ groups call for justice and closure. I get it, truly I do. No amount of retribution will bring back their lost husband, friend, or child. There is no closure to be gained from the death of another, no matter the justification. That loss will continue, forever. but that prisoner, put to death, will not commit another crime.

We are spending millions of dollars each year pretending to have a death penalty. The financial burden of prolonged appeals, building new death row facilities on the grounds of San Quentin, obtaining lethal injection pharmaceuticals, providing single celled housing, doesn’t have a public safety payoff. Some condemned inmates enjoy the fame and notoriety, get married and life goes on…

The Night Stalker

The Night Stalker

So, what’s the fix for California death penalty? It’s kind of a “Say what you mean and mean what you say” proposition. If you’re going to have the penalty on the books, carry it out. But do it knowing that the ultimate punishment should be reserved for the most horrific of crimes, that it does not provide closure for anyone, and it will be costly and fraught with legal maneuvering. If all you are concerned about it public safety, getting the bad guys off the streets, then a restricted unprivileged life behind bars, without any glimmer of hope for a return to the outside world, might be a fitting end for many a condemned man.

Just my thoughts…Hot button pushed.  Your turn.


  1. I’m sure I would feel differently if a loved one of mine was murdered but overall I am against the death penalty just because the margin for error is so large in our court systems.

    1. It is an imperfect system and the issue is larger than the courts. It starts with who is arrested, prosecution, representation and who is deemed eligible for the death penalty. Thanks for chiming in Jan.

  2. *climbs cautiously on her soap box*

    As a human rights defender and former Amnesty International coordinator for the death penalty, I have to add that most death row inmates in California do not have representation which is a major factor in their cases not advancing through the system.

    Capital punishment is by nature a conflicting issue as emotions are carried over into the legal adversarial system that is by definition devoid of emotions as the prosecution represents the Constitutional State. Seeking revenge or retribution during trial is often fueled by the pretrial the case received in the media.

    Under pressure to find closure for the victims’ families in the most heinous crimes, we have neglected that closure does not equal justice. As a result, these cases bounce back and forth with appeals (and rightfully so) as mistake after mistake is revealed often substantiated by DNA, partial finger printing, and touch DNA.

    1. *looks up at soap box*

      Representation is a huge issue, especially at trial when quality legal counsel is most important. Ripples of trial errors keep cascading. Keeping emotion out of the picture is difficult when dealing with the most emotion-laden crimes, but media fueled sensationalized accounts don’t help keep everyone on an even keel.

      Thanks for doing what you do…

  3. stephanie710 · · Reply

    Great points here. As usual, the issue with the system is well, the system. As you stated, the deterrent factor had pretty much been lost thanks to the sea of red tape that is our court system. I’ve never been a hardcore supporter of the death penalty for various reasons but it’s drifted so far off point, I don’t think it serves its intended purpose. I suppose I’d feel differently if someone I loved was taken from me via heinous acts…fortunately, that’s not the case. That being said…if we’re going to keep the death penalty, it should be swift justice with no bs. involving decades of appeals. Just my opinion though. Great post, as always. 🙂

    1. What’s “Justice with no bs,” in Latin? That would be awesome on a courtroom wall! Thanks Stephanie.

  4. I think putting someone to death is the easy way out. Make them live in a tiny cell with no privileges, yard time or visitors, just the inmate with his thoughts. And books. That, to me, is way worse than a quick lethal injection.

    1. It does seem like the easy option. Every prison system handles long term inmates differently, but a man with nothing to lose and lots of idle time is a recipe for bad things. But I do agree that privileges should be limited and anything above that must be earned.

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