Looking at the death penalty: Let’s talk about murder

There is hardly a topic more complex and disturbing than the death penalty. Yet, when it comes to talking about what lies at its core – murder – there are some fairly straightforward elements that are often ignored.

First, solving murders is the best deterrent to murder. Those who get away with murder, learn they can. Nearly half of all murders in California go unsolved, year after year, according to the new report The Silent Crisis in California: Unsolved Murders, by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. This is a deadly public safety failure that can no longer be ignored.

 Though there may be no such thing as closure when a loved one is murdered, every time a murder goes unsolved the victim’s loved ones are left behind without answers and without justice. By solving homicides and holding murderers accountable for their crimes, we provide justice for victims’ families and remove killers from our streets. With over a thousand murders going unsolved each year in California, thousands of family members are left without justice.  It is important to give voice to those who are hurt most by the failures in our justice system.  

Against this backdrop, California spends $137 million per year to fund our death penalty system.  By converting capital sentences to permanent imprisonment, the same amount could instead be used to hire an additional 1,780 criminal investigators or 2,132 crime lab technicians in order to solve more murders. Instead of focusing our attention and resources on a few “celebrity killers” who are already behind bars, we would do better by victims’ families if we invest in crime fighting for the hundreds of remaining unsolved murders.

I know this painful process all too well: I have desperately sought the identity of my brother Bob’s killer for the past seven years. I have pleaded with investigators and forensic experts and pored over coroner’s reports. It has been agonizing to go through the pain and grief of Bob’s violent death. Revenge sounds sweet at first, but in reality, families pay the real price. Our pain, suffering and doubt are prolonged endlessly, our communities remain at risk and killers roam free.

 Another troubling but true fact about murder is that not all victims are treated equally. A defendant is three or four times more likely to be sentenced to die in cases where the victim is white than in cases where the victim is African American or Latino. Meanwhile, murder cases in which the victim is African American or Latino often remain unsolved. For whatever reason, the death penalty is not applied fairly in California. Until we move closer to equal treatment under the law for all murder victims, we ought not use extraordinary amounts or resources for only certain victims.  When we treat some victims with higher regard because of particular circumstances we create inequities for both murder victims and for their survivors. Loved ones of crimes that do not capture media attention deserve no less recognition than those whose do.

 And just as we cannot guarantee that every murder will be solved or given equal attention, we cannot eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person. Faced with our current budget crisis, trial judges and county administrators are seeking to cut costs in death penalty cases – sometimes going as far as denying funding for investigation to defense attorneys in new death penalty cases. The likelihood that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death is growing. Indeed, in 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice concluded that the state was woefully underfunding death penalty cases at the trial level, creating a risk that an innocent person would be executed and causing two out of three death penalty cases to be reversed on appeal.  

 Some continue to say we must find away to “fix” the death penalty. I think we must find a way to help all victims and one way to do that is to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

 A shift to permanent imprisonment from the death penalty would mean significant savings in a time of fiscal crisis and would eliminate the risk of executing the innocent. California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years, though even more funds are required to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction and to ensure timely review of lengthy death penalty cases. For all the money dedicated to the death penalty in California, only 1 out of 100 people sentenced to death has actually been executed during the last thirty years.

 The time has come to talk honestly about murder, not politically. Permanent imprisonment ensures swift and certain punishment for those who commit the most serious crimes and frees up funds to investigate all murders and give victims’ families equal due. We cannot continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a symbolic yet ineffective death penalty system. It is time for policy makers and community members to break the silence: we need justice for all murder victims, not symbolism for a few.

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