Why Capital Punishment? When Murder Rate Falls, Tide May Turn

Article excerpt


During my years of service as an agent of the State of California I was called upon to participate in the litigation of two capital cases, both of which arose out of murders committed in 1982. As of this writing, neither of these men has been executed. I handled both cases to completion - i.e., affirmance - in the state court system and began representing the state in federal habeas corpus (a limited but time-consuming process) in one of them before I retired. Clearly, each man was guilty of the offenses charged (each admitted his guilt) and the sentences were lawfully imposed.

At the time I was assigned these cases, our office permitted "scrupled" deputies - those who opposed the death penalty on moral grounds - to reject capital cases and to make up the work by litigating other lengthy cases. I never knew how many of our "C.O.s" (conscientious objectors) were really conscientious, or rather objected to the inordinate amount of effort, stress and frustration involved.

The records were long, the issues complex and the quality of defense representation on appeal excellent. I found myself - the power and majesty of the state personified - opposing a cadre of doctrinaire attorneys of the highest caliber fighting for a cause they believed in: opposition to the death penalty. In the course of a three-year evidentiary hearing in one case, the well-known lead defense counsel blatantly refused to obey a lawful order. When I asked him later how he could justify his actions, he answered, "Hey, I'm trying to save a man's life here."

Once, I received a letter from a clergyman associated with Amnesty International asking me to rethink my position on capital punishment. I wrote back and offered to discuss the matter with him, but received no reply. Now, after the high-profile execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, we are once again examining the issue of capital punishment. To my mind, and after years of soul-searching, it is an issue as to which reasonable minds can differ, and so the resolution of the debate is properly relegated to the domain of politics: When the majority of Californians reject capital punishment, it will cease to exist here.

During the same period, I participated in an annual program for high-school students in Los Angeles called "Law Day," presented by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. The heavily attended event examined a number of issues of interest, including capital punishment. I would present the "pro" position, opposed by experienced defense attorneys. …