Early last month, a small group of California district attorneys organized what it called a “Victims of Murder Justice Tour” in a few cities around the state in which they held news conferences with family members of victims to protest Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on the death penalty.
Several of the DAs are from counties that fall within what law professor Robert J. Smith called the “Death Belt” of the United States and what the Fair Punishment Project described as “outlier counties,” because they “are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias.”
It’s no surprise then that these DAs, as well as a few others not involved in the tour but just as vocal, are frustrated and angry that California’s machinery of death has been called into question. Their zeal for state killing has always been unseemly, but it is disturbing to hear their rage displayed so openly.
So, at the risk of giving them even more of the attention they clearly want, DPF President Mike Farrell explains why we cannot stand by and let this grandstanding go without a response.
I am an abolitionist. I believe the death penalty, the taking of the life of a helpless human being, lowers the entire community to the level of the least among us at his or her worst moment. In the years I’ve spent trying to end this barbaric practice, it has become clear to me that Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was correct when he said state killing brutalizes us all.
I’ve seen too much evidence that this ugly, racist, error-prone, life-demeaning practice is harming us. So I was thrilled when Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions here in California. I dearly hope it is the beginning of the end of this soul-killing process. But, I urge you to understand, the Governor’s courage has only stopped the killing for now. It’s not over.
I was so thrilled by Newsom’s announcement I wrote an article extolling it, urging support for him in expectation of an angry response from the pro-death forces and warning those who thought the war won to “be clear that the hounds of hell are baying and the lovers of death are girding for battle.”
Some thought those words hyperbolic. Unfortunately, the outrage from many of the bloody-minded charged as keepers of justice in our society proves they were not. The death lovers would have you believe the Governor has “singlehandedly undermined our state’s democratic values and our criminal justice system.” In her article, “Newsom Supports Rapists and Torturers Over Victims and Their Survivors,” Michele Hanisee, President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, claims our Governor “thumbed his nose” at the people and “sided squarely with the state’s most monstrous murderers.” Another politician claimed the Governor’s action means “there will not be judgment for the most heinous crimes.”
Really? Are the condemned now free to climb out from under your bed to roam the streets and ravage the countryside, as Ms. Hanisee and others would have you fear? No, they remain encaged in a 6’ by 9’ cell under constant guard, shackled when moving out of their cells, even if for “recreation” in another cage.
Ms. Hanisee and those for whom she speaks would have you believe Governor Newsom, in choosing to continue the rigid incarceration of these men and women instead of killing them in our names, is “coddling” them.
Not content to savage Governor Newsom, Ms. Hanisee also lashed out at the Attorney General and leaders in our prison system for engaging “in a conspiracy of foot dragging that has deprived crime victims of their rights.” In plain speak, ‘We want killing, and we want it now!’
It apparently infuriates these so-called champions of justice that all but 23 of the 735 women and men on our death row have not yet finalized the constitutionally-mandated appeals process that determines whether their convictions and sentences were proper. Last year, Vicente Benavides was found, after 25 years on our death row, to be innocent. And I’m sure it’s a source of increasing angst to the vultures among us that one of the 23 who has finished his appeals and would be one of their first kills, is only now, after 35 years of declaring his innocence, getting the evidence in his case properly tested by advanced scientific methods to determine if he was framed.
Experience has shown me that when it comes to seeking the death of the presumed perpetrator of a terrible crime, those closest to the victim can become overwhelmed by grief and anger, sometimes rage. One certainly can’t blame them, such feelings are only natural in the moment. But some become so bereft they lose themselves and their sense of humanity, their basic decency. Consumed by a need for revenge, they become rage-driven, death-seeking lesser versions of who they once were, compounding the terrible loss.
In the face of inexplicable trauma, reeling from the effects of such a horrific experience, victims’ family members react in many ways. What I find truly remarkable and deeply inspiring is that so many of these family members manage to cling to their principles. They somehow find a way back and understand that seeking justice is a process that doesn’t necessarily require losing themselves. They recognize that a campaign to seek the death of the perpetrator of the crime that took their loved one offers a false promise. It will not bring her back; it will not return him to their loving embrace. That understanding, ideally aided by the assistance of a caring society, such as loving support, counseling and other therapeutic options, helps them reconcile themselves to a new reality, to find a way to deal with their loss and move on with their lives, free of the lust for revenge, the hatred that corrodes the soul.
Not so for the Hanisees of our world who goad families to demand revenge by calling it closure. But the true closure victims’ family members seek, and what a truly caring society can offer, is justice, reconciliation and peace, not more pain, more violence, more families’ grieving the loss of yet another life.
The hounds of hell will do everything in their power to demean Governor Newsom and bring back the killing they hunger for. We’ve made great progress, but the baying grows louder. The struggle is ours to win, but it’s not over.