Lethal obstruction: Setting aside politics and fixing the death penalty

Last week serial killer Rodney Alcala was sentenced to death.  This is the third time in thirty years an Orange County jury has sentenced him to die for the murder and rape of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe.  He has been in prison since 1979 and, if California death row statistics hold, he’ll be waiting at least another 18 years before running through his latest set of appeals.  

The staggering delays in California’s capital punishment system would be comical if not so tragic.  With the annual Victims March on the Capitol later this month, it begs the question, what are we doing, as policy makers, to ensure there is closure and justice for the victims, not just the condemned?   

The will of the voters is sacrosanct when a liberal agenda is at stake.  Mounting budget deficits demand drastic spending cuts yet lawmakers shield K-12 spending—over 40% of the California budget—by pointing to the voter passed Proposition 98 as evidence that cutting education funding would betray the will of the public.  Clearly protecting public education is important, and the voter’s will should be honored; but shouldn’t the will of the voter’s be honored equally on other policies?  Somehow the rational used to justify school spending does not extend to voter approved policies such as capital punishment or Three-Strikes.

It is perplexing, indeed, to consider that in a state where 67% of registered voters support the death penalty; 72% of voters enacted the death penalty through direct democracy; and 55% of Democrats favor the death penalty, that the entire system is poised to “collapse under its own weight.” Legislators are content to watch quietly as a popularly approved system grows more and more dysfunctional.

Those of us that have lived in California a while remember infamous murderers such as Laurence Bittaker, sentenced to death in 1983 for killing five women; or Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, sitting on death row since 1989 for killing at least 13 people.

That men like Bittaker and Ramirez have not yet received the lawful punishment pronounced upon them by a judge and jury almost thirty years ago is an appalling miscarriage of justice.  

California is looking at a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.  We can no longer afford to ignore death penalty reform.  The average lag between sentencing and execution for inmates on California’s death row is approximately eighteen years; the national average is twelve years.  Since 1978, California has executed only fourteen inmates—inmates who collectively were responsible for 44 murders.  

California has by far the nation’s largest death row, with almost 700 inmates awaiting their sentences.  According to federal Judge Arthur Alarcon, taxpayers spend $124,150 per year to house death row inmates.  All told, Californians spend almost $200,000 annually on each death row inmate.

This is not an argument against the death penalty—this is a call to make California’s death row function as it was intended to do.  Every day that legislators fail to provide our death penalty system with the necessary safeguards and resources it needs to function, taxpayers bleed green, families are left grieving and the public is endangered.  

Accordingly, I have proposed three bills that will end this tragic denial of justice that thwarts the will of the voters, threatens the safety of the public and mocks the suffering of murder victims and their families.  These bills will reduce the backlog of death penalty appeals in the California Supreme Court; streamline the habeas appeal process so that resolving habeas claims no longer takes 10-15 years; and provide for a new procedure that will eliminate cruel and unusual punishment concerns associated with California’s current three-drug cocktail.  

Inmates await a justly deserved punishment for decades before dying of old age, victims lie long buried with the offense that entombed them still un-avenged; and bereaved family members must live daily with the knowledge that a killer in San Quentin Prison will experience a day that a beloved father, daughter or grandson will never see—all caused by the lack of simple reform measures supported by voters of both parties.

Legislators—regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty—owe the California public, the victims and the condemned the courtesy of ensuring that capital punishment is administered efficiently, fairly and humanely.  To do otherwise damages the public trust in the democratic process, and questions society’s commitment to enforcing the duly-enacted laws of the state.

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