I have practiced criminal defense for over 40 years, most as a public defender. I have tried six cases where the prosecution sought the death penalty. I have one client on death row. His initial appeal was argued about two months ago before the state Supreme Court after about 18 years on death row. My client is in his 70s. Even if the court affirms his death sentence, it will be many years before he gets an attorney appointed at taxpayer expense for his state habeas and many more years before his state habeas petition is filed and heard by the court.
Of course, after all that, he will enter the federal system if his death sentence still exists and if he still exists. There are too many problems that exist with the death penalty and its enforcement to mention all of them in this letter, but besides the enormous cost at a time when our state cannot afford it, here are a few.
First, it is not applied equally and I am not just referring to the racial disparity. There is also the fact that the same type of crime with the same type of individual committing it often results in a death verdict in Long Beach or Van Nuys, but a life without parole verdict Downtown.
The prosecution is even more likely to seek death in certain parts of L.A. County than in other parts because they know that their chances of getting a death verdict is greater in those areas. This is not just a county problem, but a state problem as jurors in areas like San Francisco are much more likely to reject the death alternative than in Riverside or San Bernardino counties. For that reason, the prosecution is less likely to even seek the death penalty. Should one’s life be decided by where they live as opposed to what they did?
I have friends now who still handle death penalty cases. They tell me that their clients often say to them that they want a death sentence rather than life without parole if they are convicted because they know that it will be many years before they are executed (if at all) and that their life will be much better on death row than in the general population with their single cell, television, better access to the yard and the phone, etc.
For those who say that the death sentence is a deterrent, I have represented over 100 clients charged with murder and never had any of them say they contemplated what the punishment would be before they committed their crime. And for those who say that the problem is with the system, that is not going to change in California nor should it as death is too final to speed it along. With DNA and other new forensic advances, who knows how many more convicted inmates will be exonerated.
Finally, for those who say that the families of the victims want it, the reality is that just as often they would be satisfied with life without parole and, probably even more often, if they knew the reality regarding the far better conditions that the death row inmates live in for many, many years. The costs of the death penalty are enormous, it is not fairly applied, and it doesn’t work.