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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Death Row Inmates Oppose Prop 34 - But You Should Support It

This morning's fascinating story on the Chron brings us unexpected commentary about Prop 34: The voices of death row inmates themselves. And, as Bob Egelko tells us, they oppose the proposition.

Counterintuitive? Not really. Here goes:

It's not that they want to die, attorney Robert Bryan said. They just want to hang on to the possibility of proving that they're innocent, or at least that they were wrongly convicted. That would require state funding for lawyers and investigators - funding that Proposition 34 would eliminate for many Death Row inmates after the first round of appeals. 

Bryan has represented several condemned prisoners in California as well as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical activist and commentator whose death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman was recently reduced to life in prison. The attorney said California inmates have told him they'd prefer the current law, with its prospect of lethal injection, to one that would reduce their appellate rights. 

"Many of them say, 'I'd rather gamble and have the death penalty dangling there but be able to fight to right a wrong,' " Bryan said. 

 . . . 

Attorney Natasha Minsker, the Yes on 34 campaign manager, said the initiative would place now-condemned inmates "in the same position as every prisoner convicted of a serious felony in California," with the same right to go to court. 

They would no longer automatically get state-funded lawyers for habeas corpus claims, Minsker said. The main purpose of those lawyers now is "to save a person's life" from a wrongful execution, but that task would disappear if Prop. 34 passed, she said. 

No one has polled Death Row inmates on Prop. 34. But an organization called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty sent letters to 220 condemned prisoners in California and received about 50 replies, all but three of them against the ballot measure, said Lily Mae Hughes, the group's director. 

A few thoughts on this:

1. If anything, death row inmates' opposition to the proposition strengthens the position of those who support it for reasons of financial prudence. What the inmates want is the hope of receiving quality litigation, which is exactly the expensive good that proposition backers, particularly those of the libertarian persuasion, seek to eliminate.

2. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we worried about EVERYONE's innocence, not just that of capital inmates? I imagine after Prop 34 passes we will have to retool habeas resources in a serious way to improve litigation on behalf of lifers. And the next frontier is life without parole.

3. My pal Billy Minshall and I exchanged thoughts on this, and he speculated that, had anyone polled recently freed slaves in 1863 about abolition, we might have been surprised at the outcome. It's very difficult to imagine a more fair world when you've been making the most out of a horrifyingly unjust reality.

Props to David Takacs and Billy Minshall for alerting me to this first thing in the morning. Cross-posted to California Correctional Crisis.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on September 25, 2012 at 10:19 AM | Permalink


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Re: #2, this says something about the sorry state of the rule of law in this country, that these people are willing to risk death itself to demonstrate their innocence, rather than having that opportunity in the fullest sense as a matter of right.

(Of course, this doesn't imply that they sincerely believe in their own innocence -- they may believe the system can be gulled if they get more process. But still, the risk of gulling is one lawful societies take.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 25, 2012 10:27:09 AM

Agreed, Paul. Which is why the fix is to improve legal services for EVERYONE. Death row desperation isn't a measure of reality, but it's a measure of the sorry state of affairs.

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Sep 25, 2012 10:28:35 AM

Instead of allocating more dollars to inmates, to balance the allocation of dollars at the prosecutorial level, why can't we just cut both sides, get the same result, and save a ton of money?

Posted by: Joel | Sep 25, 2012 10:46:16 AM

It is notable that nearly nobody actually is executed in CA. A CNN article linked to the Wikipedia page concerning the DP in CA noted:

"As of May 2012 under the current 1978 law:

57 inmates have died from natural causes
6 inmates have died from "other causes"
20 inmates have committed suicide
13 have been executed in California
1 inmate was executed in Missouri."


A gambler in this situation would reasonably support the current policy.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 26, 2012 11:47:08 AM

The 729 on death row murdered at least 1,279 people, with 230 children. 43 were police officers. 211 were raped, 319 were robbed, 66 were killed in execution style, and 47 were tortured. 11 murdered other inmates.

The arguments in support of Pro. 34, the ballot measure to abolish the death penalty, are exaggerated at best and, in most cases, misleading and false.

No “savings.” Alleged savings ignore increased life-time medical costs for aging inmates and require decreased security levels and housing 2-3 inmates per cell rather than one. Rather than spending 23 hours/day in their cell, inmates will be required to work. These changes will lead to increased violence for other inmates and guards and prove unworkable for these killers.

No “accountability.” Max earnings for any inmate would amount to $383/year (assuming 100% of earnings went to victims), divided by number of qualifying victims. Hardly accounts for murdering a loved one.

No “full enforcement” as 729 inmates do not receive penalty given them by jurors. Also, for the 34,000 inmates serving life sentences, there will be NO increased penalty for killing a guard or another inmate. They’re already serving a life sentence.

Liberals are also trying to get rid of life sentences. (Human Rights Watch, Old Behind Bars, 2012.) This would lead to possible paroles for not only the 729 on death row, but the 34,000 others serving life sentences. Remember Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Darryl Thomas Kemp, Kenneth Allen McDuff, and Bennie Demps?

Arguments of innocence bogus. Can’t identify one innocent person executed in CA. Can’t
identify one person on CA’s death row who has exhausted his appeals and has a plausible claim of innocence. See http://cadeathpenalty.webs.com/

Posted by: Chris Bernstien | Sep 28, 2012 1:27:31 PM

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