Monday, June 15, 2009
Legal executions have been the law of the land in California since the late 1800s. They were briefly abolished by the state Supreme Court in 1972 and reinstated by the voters in 1978. Yet only 13 executions have taken place in the 37 years since the death penalty was reinstated.
Executions are routinely stalled by legal maneuverings that would try the patience of Job. As a result, Death Row is bursting at the seams - 680 inmates remain there, waiting decades for their appeals to run their course.
Clearly California can't afford the dysfunctional death penalty system in place. One could argue that the endless delays and legal maneuvering by death penalty opponents contribute most to the state's death penalty costs. Nationwide, the average time from conviction to execution is 12 years. In California, it is almost 25 years. If death sentences were carried out at the pace of the rest of the nation, costs to the state would be greatly diminished. Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Richard Allen Davis, the killer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Klaas was kidnapped from her home during a slumber party with her friends and brutally murdered. In the time it has taken California to process Davis' appeal, Polly would have finished high school, college and been on the road to achieving her dreams. Her future was viciously cut short by Davis, yet there seems to be no end to Davis' future in our prison system. This is not right and it is not what the voters intended. It is certainly not what the families of victims should have to endure, as they wait patiently for justice to be done.
In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report stating that the death penalty system in California was failing. In California, as of 2008, 30 inmates had been on Death Row for more than 25 years, 119 for more than 20 years and 240 for more than 15 years. Is California doing something wrong? Absolutely.
Delays in obtaining legal counsel, the appeals process, court-ordered moratoriums and other stalling tactics are routine. These delays ultimately place more value on the life of a convicted criminal than on that of the victim. I believe this is unacceptable to the victims, their families and the voters.
The sad truth in California is that killers on Death Row are far more likely to die of natural causes than at the hands of the state. As the commission noted, the interminable delays that have become the hallmark of the system have weakened the death penalty's effect on deterring crime.
One thing is certain: Californians have not shied away from their support of capital punishment. Since it was reinstated, the voters have made no effort to repeal the death penalty and, in fact, have supported ballot measures such as the "three strikes" law that impose harsher punishments for violent or repeat offenders. The simple fact is that execution for those who commit the most horrible of crimes is the law.
Advocates on both sides of this debate can agree on one point - the death penalty system in California is broken and unworkable. As long as the citizens of California continue to support the death penalty, it is the job of the Legislature to fix this dysfunctional system. If lawmakers don't, then the citizens of California will do it themselves through the initiative process. As it stands now, justice isn't being served for anyone.
Tom Harman, R-Huntingdon Beach, has served in the Legislature since 2000.