As Bob Dunning wrote last weekend in his column, “Not only did he take the lives of two of Davis’ finest, he also sentenced their parents and siblings and extended families to a lifetime of agony that simply never ends. He wounded the soul of this town and shook us to our core, and those of us who lived here then will never forget that horrible time.”
Yesterday, at the culmination of the separate penalty phase of the trial, the jury predictably handed down the ultimate penalty – death. Of course, this was largely predictable as soon as the trial started. There was no reasonable chance that this jury – handpicked for their views on the death penalty – would hand down anything other than death.
The unfortunate thing is that the current inexplicable public policy decisions make it impossible to focus on the victims. What we have is a multi-level farce and everyone knows it.
First, given Mr. Hirschfield’s age and the state of California’s death penalty system, he will never be executed by the state – I know it, you know it, the American people know it.
Even the prosecutor, as we reported earlier this week, acknowledged it to the victim.
In a recent Daily Democrat article on the case, they quoted the father of one of the victims on this very issue.
“Dr. Richard Riggins, father of John Riggins, said, “We were told from the start by the district attorney that we’d never see him executed by the death penalty, but his activities will be severely limited if he gets the death penalty. It’s not the same as being imprisoned without the possibility of parole. That’s why we’re seeking the death penalty – we want to limit his activities as much as possible in prison.”
Think about how much more money this kind of case costs – we have two defense attorneys, we have extra expenses for expert witnesses and investigation, and we have the guilt and penalty phase.
That does not even include the money for the automatic appeals with a state-funded appellate attorney, or the added cost for single-room occupancy and extra security.
The Vanguard has made requests to Yolo County for the costs of the Marco Topete death penalty trial and awaits the results of that inquiry. But the estimation by some is that that case will cost more than $1 million more than a standard murder trial.
For all of the arguments about the plea agreement – what was Mr. Hirschfield’s incentive to do anything other than pound and pray, hoping that the jury would maybe find him not guilty or maybe spare him? What was his incentive to take a plea? He too knew that he would die of natural causes in prison no matter what.
There is a second problem here – the process itself is almost assured of leading to a death verdict in a case like this where guilt is not in doubt and the crime is horrific and senseless.
Part of the problem is the way we select death penalty juries – through a death-qualification process, which eliminates jurors who have the potential to question the death penalty.
As Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Expert from the ACLU, who helped lead the Prop 34 effort, told us last year, the death-qualification process creates a juror more likely to convict and more likely to agree to choose the death penalty.
She told the Vanguard, “Research shows that our prejudiced ‘qualification’ process produces juries that are more likely to convict. Prospective jurors who make the cut to serve are more likely to believe prosecution witnesses and less likely to ask probing questions.”
“But it’s not just that all the people with moral qualms about the death penalty have been removed from the jury,” Ms. Minsker said. “The prospective jurors left after death qualification are more likely to view evidence as ‘aggravating,’ meaning it supports sentencing the person to death, and less likely to view the same evidence as ‘mitigating,’ meaning it supports imposing a sentence of life without possibility of parole instead.”
She added, “Death-qualified jurors view the facts and the evidence differently than do the jurors excluded from serving, differently in a way that favors the prosecution across the board.”
So, removed from the jury is anyone with any kind of ambiguity about the death penalty process. By doing that, you virtually ensure that in the worst cases – and clearly both Richard Hirschfield and Marco Topete are among the worst cases – the death penalty will be agreed to.
What disturbs me most here is that everyone understands that Mr. Hirschfield is never going to be executed – everyone except perhaps for the jury.
So we are going through this expensive charade- for what? A symbol? Because death row is somewhat worse in one person’s subjective view than the SHU (Secure Housing Unit) at Pelican Bay?
As we wrote earlier this week, a lot of people do not think that is accurate. But even if it is, does it possibly justify the cost?
If the belief is that somehow death row is more limiting, then perhaps we can find other answers that are less costly. Perhaps we can create the ultimate crime status for the worst of the worst. That way the jury can feel better that they duly punished the Richard Hirschfields of the world more than the standard murderer, while we end the farce that is the death penalty.
Listen again to the voices of people who used to support the death penalty.
Don Heller wrote the law in 1977.
“When I wrote it, I was absolutely certain beyond any doubt that what I was writing was morally right, was constitutionally sound, and would bring justice to people that deserved to be executed for heinous homicides,” Mr. Heller said. “I’ve gone from certainty to change.”
He cited “empirical evidence that the death penalty was not working as intended” as his impetus for changing his views. “It doesn’t work and it costs a fortune,” he added.
Mr. Heller noted that, under the law, we have only executed 13 people at the cost of over $330 million per execution. “We are causing huge expenditures of money for no reason,” he said.
“The process takes years. I never thought it would take that long for an execution. I never thought it would take that much money,” he added.
So why are we doing this? Did we bring back those young kids from 30 years ago? Do we feel better about ourselves? Did we honor the victims?
To me this is a big distraction from celebrating the life of the victims and protecting them. This is about anger, hatred, vengeance, and someone’s political career.
There is no justice here. Nothing we do can bring back the lives of these young kids.
—David M. Greenwald reporting