“We cannot assume that capital punishment is not so cruel as to offend contemporary standards of decency . . . It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. It is unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and is incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process.” — People v. Anderson
Forty years ago, as my indefatigable colleague, Bob Bacon, has reminded me, the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty. On February 18, 1972, in People v. Anderson, the Court (by a 6‑1 vote) concluded that the death penalty was both cruel and unusual and violated the state constitution’s “cruel OR unusual” clause. (Contrary to myth, Anderson was decided five years before Jerry Brown appointed Rose Bird to the Court. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Donald Wright, who had been appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan.)
There were over 100 people on California’s death row at the time of the Anderson decision, all of whom had their sentences commuted to life. (There was no “life without parole” back then.) A few months later the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Furman v. Georgia, which found all death penalty statutes then extant in the United States to be invalid under the federal constitution. (A California case, Aikens v. California, was originally going to be decided along with Furman, but became moot when the California Supreme Court decided Anderson on state constitutional grounds.)
California’s death penalty was quickly reinstated. Attempting to comply with Furman, the new statute made the death penalty mandatory for certain first degree murders and other crimes. But in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws that provided for mandatory death sentences. The California Supreme Court, relying on the high court’s ruling, once again found the state’s statute to be unconstitutional.
Undeterred, the California legislature passed a new death penalty law in 1977. This was followed in 1978 by a ballot proposition, known as the Briggs Amendment, which was similar but more expansive version that sought to encompass more — virtually all — categories of murder (including unintentional murders committed during certain felonies). Briggs passed and it is the law we are living with, so to speak, today.
Forty years after Anderson: $4 billion dollars, over a thousand death sentences, over 720 currently on death row, and 13 executions, none since January 2006.
Tani Cantil-Sakauye, after one year as the Chief Justice of the State of California, has concluded that the state’s capital punishment system is “not effective” and requires “structural changes” that the State cannot afford. Her predecessor, Ron George, who was Chief Justice for 15 years, came to the same conclusion, describing California’s death penalty scheme as “dysfunctional.”
An extensive study by Arthur Alarcon, long-time judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, who, together with law professor Paula Mitchell, determined that California’s death penalty system is currently costing the state about $184 million per year. They concluded that “since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions.”
Don Heller, who drafted the Briggs Amendment, wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News: “I never contemplated the staggering cost of implementing the death penalty: more than $4 billion to date and approximately $185 million projected per year in ongoing costs.” Heller now believes that “the cost of capital punishment takes away funds that could be used to enhance public safety.”
And most recently, Ron Briggs, who together with his father Senator John Briggs, created the initiative that bears his name, wrote an op-ed in Los Angeles Times concluding that “the Briggs death penalty law in California simply does not work.”
As Ron Briggs, now a county supervisor in El Dorado County, put it, “there are few ‘do-overs’ in life.” But 34 years after Briggs (and 40 years after Anderson first struck down California’s death penalty), “the Briggs family has decided to endorse the SAFE California campaign, a fall 2012 ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with a punishment of life without the possibility of parole.”
If it passes, the SAFE California Act would replace California’s multi‑billion dollar death penalty with life imprisonment without parole and require those convicted of murder to work and pay restitution to victim families through the victim compensation fund. It would also set aside $100 million in budget saving for local law enforcement for the investigation of unsolved rape and murder cases.
As Supervisor Briggs says, California has another chance at “real justice” and “we should embrace it.”
Please join the effort to replace the death penalty by clicking here: SAFE California.