Seeking an End to an Execution Law They Once Championed
By Adam Nagourney: April 6, 2012
PLACERVILLE, Calif. — The year was 1978, and the California ballot bristled with initiatives for everything from banning gay teachers to cracking down on indoor smoking. Both lost. But one, Proposition 7, sailed through: expanding the state’s death penalty law to make it among the toughest and most far-reaching in the country.
The campaign was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.
Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.
Partly, they changed their minds for moral reasons. But they also have a political argument to make. “At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town.
“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”
California is not the first state to reconsider the death penalty in an era of questions about its morality and effectiveness. And even with these unusual advocates — and a new argument, that the death penalty has cost the state a fortune but produced only 13 executions in 34 years — the repeal faces tough going.
This is a state with a history of colorful crimes and criminals; polls here invariably find strong support for executions.
“It’s been a colossal failure,” Mr. Heller said in his Sacramento office. “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.”
A Field Poll in September found a jump in the number of Californians who would favor life without parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of first-degree murder, to 48 percent last year from 37 percent in 2000. Still, over all, 68 percent said they supported the death penalty for serious crimes. The report said that keeping inmates in prison for life would cost substantially less than executing them.
“Whenever you just ask about the death penalty in and of itself, the public continues to support it,” said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll. So the attempt to rescind it is “going up against established opinion, which is a tall order,” he said.
Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said cost “is probably the only argument that has any chance. The people have heard all the other arguments for years, and it has never gotten any traction.”
Mr. Briggs said his views began to change after he learned about the case of a woman who had been shot and sexually assaulted in 1981. The attacker — who also killed a woman in the assault — remains entangled in appeals, forcing the victim to continue to face him. “I just thought about the horror for her that we did,” he said. “He committed a crime in ’81. What a lousy system.”
The other factor? “I started going back to church,” said Mr. Briggs, a Roman Catholic.
When he wrote the initiative, Mr. Heller said, he gave no thought to its cost. “I am convinced now that it has never deterred anyone from committing a murder,” he said. “In my mind, I realized what I did was a big mistake.
Full Story: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/us/fighting-to-repeal-california-execution-law-they-championed.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&emc=eta1
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