Supporters and opponents of the death penalty look to an election showdown over Proposition 34.
A dozen religious leaders gathered at the First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley earlier this month. The star of the gathering was Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun and death penalty opponent who wrote the book “Dead Man Walking.”
“A lot of times we ask the question ‘Who deserves to die?’” said Prejean. “We’ve got to ask the flip question. ‘Who deserves to kill them? Do you? Do I? Do we as a society?’ No, it diminishes life.”
This gathering was a rally and press conference in support of Proposition 34. The proposition to repeal the death penalty comes at a time when executions are declining and capital punishment is on hold in California as courts examine the drug cocktail used for executions.
But supporters and opponents of the death penalty remain passionate in an electoral contest that polls show is very close.
The group at the Methodist church was religiously diverse, and they have differed on other political issues. But on the question of the death penalty, they all urged a vote for Proposition 34.
“Islam is pro-life. Islam is for promoting lives, and is for making society and the community safer,” said Imam Taha Hassane of the San Diego Islamic Center.
“I think there are many punishments that can go along with redemption and rehabilitation, and that don’t extinguish the hope that every human being deserves,” said Pastor Madison Shockley of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ. “And I think the death penalty violates that principle of justice.”
The punishment that would replace the death penalty under Proposition 34 would be life in prison without the possibility of parole. Among the people who see that as a better way include Ronnie Carmona.
In 2008, her son Arthur was killed by man who ran into him with his car. But Carmona said she never wanted to see the offender put to death.
“Death, to me, is a form of release. You’re releasing someone from the obligation to pay for the crime you committed,” said Carmona.
She said the “obligation” is paid through years in prison.
“I thought the person should spend the rest of their life in prison. To me that’s justice,” she said.
To those who would say the death penalty brings closure, Carmona said, “there is no closure when you lose a loved one that way.”
Proposition 34 is backed by diverse groups of people who include religious leaders and former law enforcement officials. They argue no justice system is good enough to guarantee that no innocent person would ever be executed.
They also argue the death penalty is a poor use of funds. The state legislative analyst says repealing the death penalty would save the state up to $100 million every year.
One reason many victim’s families see no “closure” in the death penalty lies in its history.
Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, the state has condemned just under 900 people to death. It has executed only 13.
This subject came up at a legislative hearing on Proposition 34. There, former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti said the state’s inability or unwillingness to actually execute people was good reason to abolish capital Punishment.
“The system is broken. It’s dysfunctional, and underlying this, it cannot be fixed,” said Garcetti.
But not everyone accepts the argument that the death penalty should be abolished, simply because the state has failed to make it work. One of them is Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles.
“Couldn’t anybody on any side of an issue, right, left, or in-between, take a system they don’t like and bog it down so much with lawsuits, with red tape, with delays, with cost and consent decrees, and then come back and say the system doesn’t work?” said Gatto.
Kermit Alexander’s mother and younger sister were both murdered. And he wants the death penalty fixed.
“What we need to do is figure out we have the brains. We have the money. We need to find out the most expeditious way to get it done and get it done!” he told members of the joint Senate/Assembly committee.
Daniel Lamborn agrees. Now Chief Deputy District Attorney for San Diego County, in the 1990s, he prosecuted Cleophus Prince, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering six women.
Prince was sentenced to death in 1993 but today, 19 years later, he’s still alive in San Quentin. Lamborn said he still supports the death penalty, and he asks people to imagine someone who commits one rape and murder.
“Well here’s somebody else, who does that not once but six times, where he essentially tortures and kills women,” he said.
“Are five of those murders free ones? Where he doesn’t do any more time for five of the six women he killed? He would have gotten life in prison for the one. So we send out the message to the community, hey… if you do one murder you might as well do a dozen, because there isn’t going to be one more day in custody for that,” said Lamborn.
California death-row inmates are much more likely to die of natural causes than execution. They typically stay on death row for at least 25 years. Lamborn said given the political will, California can speed up the appeals process.
But in the end, the issue for both sides isn’t about costs or delays. It’s about doing what’s right.
“When we have the DNA, when we have soil samples, fiber samples, every aspect of science telling us that this guy did it, and when we have a monster, why not do justice? Why not do justice?” said Lamborn.
But Pastor Madison Shockley sees it differently.
“We look at the death of an innocent Jesus on a Roman cross, and we learn two things,” he said. “One, human beings are incapable of discerning ultimate innocence or guilt. And two, even in the face of guilt, God calls us to grace.”
Originally posted at KPBS.