Prop 34, if you haven't paid attention, is the California ballot measure that, if it's passed on November 6, will eliminate the death penalty in The Golden State and replace it with LWOP. From one form of Death in Prison to another. Sigh.
Anyway, it's a major fight. I'm not going to take up your time now rattling on about why the death penalty should be abolished and how it is that abolition in California would be a major step and a great thing and dammit even good for California. You know what side I'm on. Want more information? Trying to figure out how to volunteer to help the effort? Go here.
That's not what I want to talk about today.
I want to talk about honesty.
Which forces me to talk about New Hampshire on my way to talking about California.
See, a few years ago, The Granite State came really close to abolition. Things were looking good, since really, who gave a damn. After all, there was nobody on the row there, and New Hampshire hadn't actually executed anyone since 1939.* In fact, the legislature passed abolition, but the governor vetoed it.
That's not actually the story I'm interested in. The story is that one sheriff who spoke explained that the death penalty was really important, really really import, really really really. Not so they could execute people of course. They wouldn't want to do that, he didn't quite say, not in the state with the motto
Live Free or Die(Well, maybe they would want to kill people in a state with that motto. But I digress.)
No, the death penalty was important because otherwise people wouldn't just plead out to life in prison. Which makes a certain kind of sense. If the idea of a plea bargain is that you avoid something worse, then LWOP only works as a plea bargain if there's something worse to avoid.
And that brings us back to California, and to Debra J. Saunders column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
She's opposed to Prop 34. Oh, she recognizes the structural problem.
California's death penalty law is close to worthless as a killing machine. They don't actually execute people in California, it mostly seems. They just spend extra tens of millions trying capital cases, housing death row inmates, and pursuing years of endless litigation that's more likely to end with an inmate's death from natural causes than from a legally ordained killing.
So Mark Klaas likely won't have the satisfaction of knowing that Richard Allen Davis will be killed for the murder of Polly Klaas.
Klaas wants to see Davis executed, he told me later, because the man who killed his daughter should have no influence in this world. That, he emphasized, is "what's supposed to stop."Likely won't happen. Oh, Davis will die eventually. Everyone does. But the odds are against it's happening at the instance of the state.
See, it's not about the killing. There's no closure. Klaas doesn't expect the pain to go away or to miraculously heal should Davis ever be killed. But the collateral consequence for Californians, that's something else..
He cited cases like that of John Gardner. After the convicted sex offender was arrested for the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King in 2010, Gardner went for a deal. He admitted to killing King, and also to the 2009 murder and attempted rape of 14-year-old Amber Dubois. Gardner even led authorities to Amber's bones.
Parents Brent and Kelly King agreed to the plea bargain, because, they said in a statement covered by CBS News, "the Dubois family has been through unthinkable hell the past 14 months. We couldn't imagine the confession to Amber's murder never seeing the light of day, leaving an eternal question mark."
"You take the death penalty off the table," Klaas told The Chronicle, and communities will be held hostage to the fear and uncertainty that follow when a young person goes missing. "Crimes will not be solved. Victims will not be recovered."
To use the death penalty as a bargaining chip is to deny it even the pretense of moral force. To keep the death penalty on the books because it's a useful bargaining chip is to deny even the pretense of moral force to the whole justice system.
And really, that pretense is about all they have out in California these days.
*Things have changed. There's now one person on New Hampshire's death row.