I have to admit that I was surprised, both in 2012 and 2016, that the death penalty was allowed to remain intact by California voters. After all, we don’t really have a death penalty in California – 13 is the number of people executed since 1978 when it was re-legalized.
In a trend across the country, not only has support for the death penalty fallen dramatically, but the number of executions has plunged.
In 1999 the number of executions peaked at 98. That number was 20 in 2016. Death sentences are down as well. In 1996, there were 315 people sentenced to die by execution. In 2016, that number was 30.
The other day we posted an interesting article out of the Texas ACLU talking about the execution of Chris Young for the killing of a store owner in San Antonio 14 years before. Mitesh Patel lost his father in the robbery-killing, but fought hard to save the life of the man who killed his father.
One of the most stunning things I learned is not that Mr. Young was executed despite this support, but rather how few executions there have been. Mr. Young was the eighth person executed in Texas this year. He was the 12th person executed in the nation.
The number currently stands at 14. The six outside of Texas were in: Alabama (2) Georgia (2), Florida, and Ohio. That means only one person north of the Mason-Dixon line has been executed this year.
The reality is that we are likely to continue this slow decrease of death penalty cases. California has been unwilling to end theirs altogether, but many other states have done so.
Given the amount of money we spend on housing and trying people condemned to execution, given the number of people we have exonerated from death row, why do we even have a death penalty anymore?
According to one figure, 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row since 1973. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, that means for every “10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free.”
Even with fewer death penalty cases imposed, the cases are proving problematic.
In April, the LA Times Editorial Board wrote about the case of 68-year-old former farm worker Vicente Benavides Figueroa who was freed from death row after 25 years.
He was convicted of sodomizing and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter. “All but one of the medical experts who testified against him recanted their conclusions that the girl had, in effect, been raped to death — conclusions they had reached after reviewing incomplete medical records. In fact, the first nurses and doctors who examined the semiconscious and battered girl in 1991 observed no injuries suggesting she had been raped or sodomized, but those details were not passed along to the medical expert witnesses who testified in court. Injuries later observed at two other hospitals were likely caused by that first effort to save her life, which included attempts to insert an adult-sized catheter.”
The editorial board writes: “His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state. Not all of them will be saved, as Benavides was.”
Another long-time questionable case involves Kevin Cooper. The question: is he innocent? He has been on death row since May 1985.
The case came back to the public focus this spring because of a column from Nicholas Kristof. In 1983, four people were murdered in a home in Chino Hills, California. In a declaration from retired special agent Thomas Parker of the FBI, he said, “In the hours following the discovery of the murders, multiple piece evidence strongly indicated that the murders had been committed by a group of three white men.”
He added that the sole surviving victim gave two statements “inculpating three white men in the vicious murder of his father, mother, sister and friend who happened to be spending the night…”
Mr. Kristof writes: “Then a woman told police that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved, and she gave deputies his bloody coveralls.”
What did the sheriff’s deputies do? “They threw away the bloody coveralls and arrested a young black man named Kevin Cooper” who was convicted and still awaits execution.
In May, Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper.”
Mr. Cooper, now 60, was 27 at the time of the 1983 murder. He has maintained his innocence and exhausted all appeals.
Governor Brown apparently has the authority to authorize the use of DNA testing, and he also has the power to invoke his clemency powers to spare his life.
Mr. Kristoff writes that Governor Brown, a long-time opponent of capital punishment, “is refusing to allow advanced DNA testing that might finally resolve the question of who committed the murders, even though Cooper’s defense would pay for it. Brown refuses to allow even advanced testing of the blond or brown hairs that were found in the victims’ hands.”
Of course, eliminating the death penalty doesn’t solve the problem of wrongful convictions, it simply prevents wrongfully convicted people from being executed.
Twice now, California has had a chance to end the charade, and thus far the voters have declined to do so.
—David M. Greenwald reporting