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A workshop teaches advocates to lobby for an end to the death penalty

on June 29, 2011

Nearly 20 years ago, Essence magazine asked Barbara Becnel to write an article on black youth gangs. She convinced the leaders of the Crips and the Bloods, notorious Los Angeles-based street gangs, to let her spend months with them, getting to know the culture and the realities of life in the gangs. That story took her to San Quentin’s Death Row, where the last living Crips co-founder and former leader, Stanley “Tookie” Williams had been incarcerated for over a decade, and she started a friendship with him that lasted until he was executed in 2005.

It was rocky at first. Williams was notoriously suspicious of the media, and Becnel said it took months of writing letters before he would even agree to meet her, although he would not promise an interview. “In the first few months of me going up to visit Stan we were just at each other’s throats because it was just class warfare,” Becnel recalled. She returned to the prison for years to visit Williams, at first as a reporter, and as time went on, as a friend. That friendship changed her completely. “When I walked into that prison, the person I was then is almost in no way the person I am today,” she said.

“What Stan helped me to find was what I call my ‘true black self,’” Becnel said. She stopped relaxing her hair, started wearing braids, and overcame her inhibitions about challenging power. Most of all, her relationship with Williams galvanized her into an activist for justice and a death penalty abolitionist.

Williams changed over the course of their friendship, too, becoming a leading voice against gang violence and writing books designed to prevent kids from getting into the gang life. But while Becnel credits Williams with changing her life, she said his change was his really own. “He had already started his process of rehabilitation,” she said.

Williams’ 2005 execution was “the most horrific experience of my life,” said Becnel. But she said that it also an almost religious experience to see what she describes as Williams’ transcendence and grace in the hours as he faced execution. “That last day of his life put steel in my spine and purpose, total purpose, in my soul, to continue to make my contribution to the battle to end what I clearly saw is state-sponsored murder,” she said.

Becnel told her story to a group of some thirty activists gathered on Saturday in the large multipurpose room of Easter Hill Church in Richmond. The group came together as part of a day of workshops meant to train community activists in Contra Costa County to work on the local and state levels to end the death penalty. Workshops focused on lobbying elected officials, writing letters to the editors of publications and effectively communicating arguments against the death penalty to voters in California. The training was put on by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and co-sponsored by Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the El Cerrito Democratic Club.

California has had the death penalty since 1872. A moratorium was ordered by both the US Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court in 1972, but six years later, the moratoria were relaxed and voters passed Proposition 7, effectively reinstating the death penalty in California and guaranteeing condemned prisoners the right to appeal their execution up to the California Supreme Court. Since 1978, the state has executed 13 men.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that those who commit the most egregious murders deserve to be sentenced to death for those crimes, and that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to crime. Opponents of the system say that it is costly and ineffective, and some oppose it on moral grounds.  “From my perspective, I’m against the death penalty whether you kill a cop, whether you are innocent, whether you are guilty or not,” Becnel said. “The state killing a person is not the solution.”

Because voters enacted the death penalty, it has to be repealed by voters, so the ACLU has worked in coalition with other groups to train organizers who can convince the public that better alternatives are available. “Life without parole keeps communities safe, prevents the execution of innocent people, and will literally save $1 billion in five years,” said Natasha Minsker, who heads up the ACLU’s death penalty project in California. Minsker said the ACLU trains anti-death penalty activists in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Diego counties. “This training is part of a process of exploring and expanding out into Contra Costa County,” she said.

The death penalty in Contra Costa County

Contra Costa County’s court system is one of California’s most frequent users of the death sentence. In the last ten years, the county has spent $9.9 million on death penalty cases. “Historically, Contra Costa has been in the top ten in the number of death penalties,” Minsker said. Between 2001 and 2010, Contra Costa County ranked seventh among state counties for the number of death sentences per murders, and fourth for the number of death sentences per population, according to a fact sheet provided at the training.

While Contra Costa County’s murder rate is consistently high—9th in the state last year—the county’s prosecutors also pursue the death penalty more frequently than other counties do. In San Francisco, which has a higher murder rate than Richmond, fewer murderers are given the death sentence. “The murder rate doesn’t tell the whole story,” Minsker said. “District Attorneys’ decisions to seek the death sentence is a primary driver of how many death penalties there are on the county level.” She also noted that there have been no death penalty cases tried this year in Contra Costa County, although historically the county’s prosecutors have aggressively pursued capital cases.

At the national level, California also leads the states in awarding the death penalty. With 714 people on Death Row, California has the largest population of Death Row inmates in the country—Pennsylvania is second with roughly 400, Minsker said. In California, juries impose more death sentences than any other state, handing out 29 last year, compared to Texas’s eight.  But the state actually executes fewer inmates than any other state with a death penalty. Only 13 people have been put to death in California since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978.

In 2005, when Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed by lethal injection, he was the twelfth person to be executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated.

An inefficient and costly system

The activists gathered at Easter Hill Church on Saturday are pushing for the abolition of the death penalty in California, favoring life without parole. That change, Minsker said, would save the state millions of dollars and free up funds to pay for vital government services, including police officers. “Right now in California, the economic crisis and budget crisis is pretty much the most important issue in the state,” Minsker said. “The fact that the high cost of the death penalty continues to be part of the problem, we believe that’s something the voters should know about and care about.”

Minsker says the death penalty system has deep problems that weigh it down and make it costly and ineffective. In setting up a system of capital punishment, she says there’s a tension between expense, expediency and quality. To have a higher quality death penalty—one that provides people sentenced to death with ample opportunities to appeal their conviction—it will cost the state more and take longer. “You can make a cheap or a fast death penalty, but it increases the chance that you will execute innocent people,” she said.

In order to give each Death Row inmate a fair chance of appeal, inmates have to be provided with legal council, have the right to appeal their conviction up to the California Supreme Court and must be housed in special units with extra security. And all of that costs taxpayers, Minsker said.

On Monday, the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review released a sprawling analysis of the costs of California’s death penalty. The study, authored by US. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Paula Mitchell, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, takes on the legislative and initiative history of capital punishment in California, and draws on previously-unreleased documents to calculate the real costs to taxpayers of administering the current death penalty.  The analysis reproaches California’s legislators for failing to revise the death penalty process, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and leaving Death Row inmates in limbo for decades.

The authors say Californians have passed “tough on crime” initiatives expanding the death penalty, each time being told that the costs of more Death Row cases would be mitigated by a reduction in funds necessary for housing those inmates. But, they say, these initiatives have never been properly funded, resulting in a capital punishment system scuttled with backlogged cases and exploding costs.

Since 1978, Californians have spent $4 billion prosecuting and incarcerating death penalty cases. In that time, only 13 people have been executed, averaging about $308 million for each execution. The reason, the study’s authors say, is an underfunded and unnecessarily long process that can take as long as 20 years for a condemned inmate to be executed.

Between housing, providing medical care and the additional legal fees to provide the representation that is guaranteed under the law for Death Row inmates, Alarcon and Mitchell say it costs $184 million per year more to incarcerate a Death Row inmate than those sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Among the increased costs are up to $300,000 in attorneys’ fees the state pays for each condemned inmate and over $100,000 in extra security costs. Trials for capital cases cost $200,000 more than non-capital cases and typically run three to four weeks longer.

People sentenced to death in California have the right to make Writ of Habeas Corpus claims in federal court, which is meant to assure that their rights to due process are fully granted before they are put to death. But before that, they must exhaust their habeas claims in the state courts. According to Alarcon and Mitchell, California fails to provide enough funds to appoint lawyers for that process, and the first four or five years after conviction, “condemned inmates simply sit awaiting the appointment of counsel.” This is in large part because California does not have enough death penalty attorneys to handle the appeals of Death Row inmates, they say. It can take up to ten years before the California Supreme Court reviews their convictions.

Since 1978, 32 inmates have died on Death Row with federal habeas corpus petitions still pending. Most died from natural causes, but some died from suicide or drug overdoses or were killed by corrections officers.

Alarcon and Mitchell offer three options to bring an end to what they outline as an untenable system marked by out-of-control costs and in which executions are rare. One solution would be to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, which they say would save tax payers roughly $1 billion every five years. Another is to reduce the number of crimes that are eligible for the death penalty, saving taxpayers about $55 million each year. A third possibility is to maintain the current system and provide the $85 million more in funding for courts and the lawyers the system requires to efficiently manage death penalty cases. Their recommendations are in line with the findings of several previous reviews of the system, including that of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Unless California voters want to tolerate the continued waste of billions of tax dollars on the state’s now-defunct death penalty system, they must either demand meaningful reforms to ensure that the system is administered in a fair and effective manner,” they write. “Or, if they do not want to be taxed to fund the needed reforms, they must recognize that the only alternative is to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”

Alarcon and Mitchell point out that for 25 years, state elected officials have failed to make meaningful changes to the system. They predict that costs will continue to rise if the system continues unchanged, including paying for a proposed housing unit for Death Row inmates at San Quentin, which they estimate will cost an additional $2 billion over the next 20 years and will fill up long before then.

A possible sea change

Saturday’s training in Richmond was part of a strategy by a coalition of groups to organize people at the county level to advocate for an end to the death penalty. Minsker said the training had a range of activists with different levels of experience. “Some worked on the issue before, and some had not,” she said. “But they all believed that the death penalty should be replaced with life without parole.”

The goal of the workshops was to teach the participants to effectively communicate their opposition to the death penalty. To that end, she said the workshops were designed to be interactive, with lots of role playing and opportunities to share their experiences and strategies.

On Monday, Senator Loni Hancock, who represents Richmond as well as Oakland and Berkeley in Sacramento, introduced legislation to put an initiative on the ballot in November to abolish the death penalty in California. While Minsker wants to see that happen, she said the coalition is concentrating on changing minds county by county. “We’re really focused on the local level, on one-on-one conversations with voters in every community,” Minsker said.

And Minsker says that she does see a change at the local level of the legal system. She said juries are rejecting the death penalty and prosecutors are realizing that it’s not worth their time and money to pursue death sentences. “The murder rate has been going down for a long time, but death sentences are just starting to drop,” she said.

In the last six months, there have only been three new death penalty convictions in the state, compared to 13 in the same six month period last year. “We believe it’s the beginning of a sea change because the drop is so significant,” she said.

But even if the drop in death penalty cases continues, California still has 714 people on Death Row. “This is state-sponsored killing,” said Becnel. “It cannot continue.”

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