A new analysis of the 85 ways California’s death penalty system is broken


Fourteen years ago, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment issued a report recommending 85 reforms designed to minimize the possibility that an innocent person would be executed under that state’s death penalty scheme. One year later, Southern California criminal defense attorney (and DPF board member) Robert Sanger analyzed the report in light of California’s death penalty system, and concluded that more than 92 percent of the same reforms were needed in California. In fact, Sanger discovered that California’s system had even more weaknesses than Illinois’, increasing the risk of executing the innocent.

The Illinois report spurred scholars, judges, and a California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to look at California’s scheme and identified the same flaws — flaws that led to the innocent being convicted and sentenced to death.

Now, 14 years after the Illinois report was issued, and 13 years after his original analysis, Sanger has again looked at the 85 reforms, in an effort to determine what California has done to correct the flaws that led to innocent people being sentenced to death. His conclusion? Nothing.

“Illinois fixed some of the flaws, but they then repealed the death penalty,” says Sanger. “However, not one of these flaws has been fixed in California. None. And yet, California has not repealed its death penalty.”

It’s ironic that California, often considered a bellwether state, should lag behind Illinois, which repealed its death penalty in 2011. But in November, California voters will have the opportunity to lead the state in the right direction by voting for Proposition 62.

“Proposition 62 does what should have been done long ago. It finally repeals the fatally flawed system that no one is willing to even try to fix,” says Sanger. “It saves millions of dollars and brings California into the 21st century.”

On the other hand, a competing measure, Prop 66, will only make California’s broken death penalty system worse. As Sanger says, “The group of prosecutors [sponsoring Prop 66] who favor the death penalty still do not get it. Their proposition does not fix any of these flaws. It costs a fortune and is naively unworkable for other reasons. It would actually make it easier to convict and execute the innocent.”

By voting to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole, California can finally do this year what should have been done at least 14 years ago.

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