Terry McCaffrey is on a mission.
Chair of the East-West San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the California People of Faith and Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for the South Bay and Western regions, he is working hard to abolish the death penalty in California. Once that’s done, and he believes it will happen soon, he’ll turn to the other death penalty states and get it abolished there.
It’s a lot for one person, especially one who is 91. But McCaffrey is tireless and determined. “It ignites my passion,” he says. “And it is a passion because it’s a human rights issue.”
He has no doubt the death penalty will be abolished in his lifetime. “Look at Virginia,” he says. He volunteered with Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for years back in the early 2000s, working with other volunteers to educate Virginians about the state’s racist, unfair, and classist criminal justice system, and demonstrating outside the prison during executions.
So when Virginia abolished its death penalty in March 2021, the first Southern state to do so, McCaffrey’s resolve was strengthened, and he doubled down on his efforts to do what he could to end capital punishment in California.
“I can’t believe it happened in Virginia. I know we can do it here. Look at Oregon (de facto abolition) and Washington (abolished in 2018). The moratorium (California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on the death penalty in March 2019) was a huge and psychologically important step. It encouraged so many of us.”
“We can’t look to the U.S. Supreme Court, obviously,” McCaffrey says. “But the trend is going our way. We have to keep doing our work, and we’ll succeed.”
McCaffrey and others from California People of Faith worked closely with Death Penalty Focus on two abolition initiatives, one in 2012 and the other in 2016. And though both lost, he wasn’t discouraged. In fact, the 2016 loss inspired CPF to develop a new strategy. “The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty, but the people in the pews are for it. We have to reach the people in the pews,” he says.
He’s currently working with others at CPF on getting support for California’s SB 300, which would allow those in prison who are not the actual killer to be considered for parole release. It will address the injustice of the felony murder special circumstance law by allowing for a sentence other than the death penalty or life in prison without parole for a person convicted of a felony who did not kill anyone nor intend for anyone to die.
CPF is also meeting with district attorneys around the state to urge them to pledge not to seek death in future cases.
And, as coordinator for Amnesty International, he’s working with CPF to raise support for calling on President Biden to abolish the federal death penalty and commute the sentences of those on federal death row.
He has no plans to stop now. “I have a very good medical condition. I can hear well, see well, and my brain works well. I just have to keep going,” he says.
(This is the first in a series of profiles we plan to run over the next few months on individual faith leaders’ efforts to mobilize support for ending the death penalty in California.)