Death Penalty Reform’s Strange Bedfellows Bad News for Blacks in California

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Former Governors George Duekmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and their supporters are banking on Blacks ignorance and apathy towards the electoral process to help pass the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2014 into law.

Anytime three of California’s former governors—two Republican and one Democratic—all agree on something, do not look back, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

This week all three former governors announced their endorsement of a proposed initiative for the November ballot to end what they call lengthy death penalty appeals and to speed up executions.

This effort comes after California voters narrowly rejected 2012’s Proposition 34 aimed at ending capital punishment with just 48% of voters in favor and 52% against.

As of March 4, 2014, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation there were 743 inmates on death row. Approximately 36 percent (269) of those inmates are Black, including two females.  In the 32 states that practice capital punishment, according to the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund report “Death Row USA (July 1, 2013),” Blacks account for 41 percent of all persons on death row, even though we constitute only about 11 percent of the overall population, and just six percent of the population in California.

Proponents of the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2014 have begun collecting the roughly 800,000 signatures of registered voters needed to get the proposal on the November ballot.  If passed, among other things, the law would reform the appeals process by having death penalty appeals first heard by the California Court of Appeals and only if necessary, then the California Supreme Court.  It also seeks to force death row inmates to work in prison to pay restitution to their victims’ families or risk losing special privileges. Unless one of those privileges is the right to live or freedom—good luck with that one.

As a society we would like to believe that all of the persons on death row are guilty.  The reality is that in this country both the innocent and the guilty are  accused and convicted of capital crimes and find themselves on death row. Some innocent death row prisoners have been executed, as was the case with Cameron Todd Willingham.  Eight years after Willingham was executed in Texas for setting a fire that killed his three children, he was exonerated after  “overwhelming, credible, and reliable evidence” regarding his innocence came to light.  Unfortunately, you cannot bring the dead back to life.

DNA testing of evidence in criminal cases has resulted in freedom for hundreds of prisoners across the United States, many of whom are Black and who were wrongfully convicted.  And while freedom came for some, it was not before many prisoners spent years behind bars — some even facing the death penalty for crimes they didn’t commit.

This is what the founding fathers of this country were trying avoid. The American justice system is one that presumes the accused to be innocent and allows for even the convicted to assert their innocence through the process of appeals.  It is the very foundation of our criminal justice system.  Shortening the process under the guise of saving money, speeding up executions, and justice for the victims only ensures that more innocent people are killed, and that’s not justice.  Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, no one wants to see an innocent person put to death.

Just this month in Baltimore, former Black Panther Marshall Edward Conway, who spent nearly 44 years in maximum security prisons, was released after his attorneys successfully filed a motion on his behalf based on the 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision in the case of Unger v. State.  In that decision, the court said that a Maryland jury, to comply with due process as stated in the US Constitution, must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that someone charged with a crime is guilty before that jury can convict the defendant.  Conway’s attorney argued that the judge in his trial had not properly instructed the jury that this “beyond a reasonable doubt” provision was mandatory for conviction.  Now at the age of 67, Conway is a free man but had he been on death row—he’d already be dead.

Mistakes are made, but it’s a lot easier to correct a mistake by freeing a person who’s alive than it is to bring someone back to life after they’ve been put to death for a crime they did not commit.

And that brings me to former California governors Duekmejian, Wilson, and Davis, who are no friends to Blacks in California.

Let’s take a trip back down memory lane.

Governor Duekmejian authored California’s capital punishment law when he was a lawmaker.  Under Duekmejian’s gubernatorial reign of 1983 through 1991, 140 people were sentenced to death row and under his leadership the California prison population nearly tripled from 34,640 inmates in 1982 to 97,309 by the end of 1991. Due to the increased number of inmates, it was Duekmejian who increased the spending for the building of new prisons.

As a candidate for reelection, in 1986 he opposed the retention election of three Jerry Brown-appointed justices of the California Supreme Court due to their consistent opposition to the death penalty in any and all circumstances with Rose Bird, the first female Chief Justice of the Court being the first to be voted off.

Duekmejian was followed by Pete Wilson.  Under Wilson, 248 people were sentenced to death in the 8 years he served as governor—bypassing his predecessor’s record by 108.

Labeled as being “tough on crime,” it was Wilson who signed into law the infamous “Three Strikes” act.  As a result of the Three Strikes Law, over 4,431 offenders have been sentenced to 25 years to life, with most of them being African-American.  Because of the amount of people being incarcerated under Three Strikes, there was a boom in the construction of new prisons, leading someto question the role of Wilson with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a lobbying group of prison guards that gave $1.47 million to Wilson’s gubernatorial campaigns.

Wilson also supported resuming the death penalty in California after a after a 25-year moratorium.  Under his administration, five people were executed.

And then there’s self-described Democratic Gray Davis.  Davis, who was recalled in his second-term in office as governor, was a supporter of the death penalty and tougher sentencing laws.  Davis blocked nearly all parole recommendations by the parole board and between 1999 and 2003, 127 people were added to the state’s death row.

Politics often makes strange bedfellows, but like English jurist William Blackstone said, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

The Death Penalty Reform Act is flawed and greatens the chance that someone innocent will be put to death in the name of saving a buck and speed.

Supporters of the death penalty are banking on Black voters staying home in November since President Barack Obama is not on the ballot. Blacks cannot afford to be apathetic on anything regarding the death penalty and a criminal justice system that continues to unfairly prosecute African-Americans and is still more concerned with punishment than rehabilitation.

The Court of Public Opinion