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Byron Williams

Byron Williams

Posted: October 5, 2010 06:54 PM

For nearly five years, as the courts debated the method by which California would execute those on death row, the state has managed to survive without capital punishment.

It appeared last week that streak would come to an end, as California prepared to execute Albert Brown.

Brown, 56, is condemned to die for raping and strangling 15-year-old Susan Jordan, who disappeared while walking to school in Riverside in 1980.

Though Brown has received a temporary stay, it seems to be only a matter of time before California is back in the execution business.

The death penalty is arguably the most emotional and least judiciously applied public policy we possess. No other issue comes to mind where public support is driven almost solely by how an individual feels.

The emotion around this issue is so great that Attorney General Jerry Brown, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, assured California voters that he would not allow his personal beliefs to prohibit him from carrying out the law if he is elected governor.

The death penalty is an issue where emotion is more important than facts.

It is more expensive than life without the possibility of parole, there is no credible data to suggest that it saves lives, chances are that inmates on death row will die of natural causes before lethal injection and it has an error percentage, regardless of how low it is, that remains too high for any developed nation.

Ambitious and irresponsible politicians will contend that we must do away with the so-called frivolous appeals process. That too is an emotional petition; and if it were administered, would make capital punishment even more barbaric.

Because the death penalty is most often debated on the terrain of emotion those of us in opposition are erroneously portrayed as caring more for the perpetrator than the victim's family. What can any rational human say in defense of the crime of which Albert Brown has been convicted?

Moreover, there is nothing anyone can say or do that will heal the gaping hole that victim's families must courageously seek to close.

Every public policy is vulnerable if it is to be debated at the margins. I know of no responsible death penalty opponent who wants those who have committed such gruesome crimes to be released.

Is Albert Brown the reason we should maintain a policy that is ineffectual at best? Or should the death penalty be measured by its cost and any potential error percentage above zero that should be unacceptable for the state?

According to a report released by the ACLU, California taxpayers pay at least $117 million annually at the post-conviction level seeking execution of those on death row, translating to $175,000 per inmate per year. The ACLU report estimates the execution of all inmates currently on death row or waiting for them to die naturally -- which for most is the case -- will cost California an estimated $4 billion.

I don't mourn for Albert Brown, but I am saddened for a state that leads the nation in so many areas, but remains blinded by emotion as it advocates for a policy that simply does not work.

The fact is we already ostensibly have life without parole. We are just maintaining the cost of the death penalty, while executing a few, to maintain the illusion.

We don't need further debates on the efficacy of lethal injection; the death penalty as a policy needs to simply be eliminated.

As I have stated before, the death penalty is driven by what former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan defined as "irrational exuberance." Just as Greenspan used the term as a warning against overvalued stocks, I would argue that the importance placed on death penalty policy is also overvalued.

The thirst for revenge blinds us to certain realities. Those who are poor, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, people of color as well as those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation, comprise the majority of those who receive the death penalty.

That is not justice despite what ambitious politicians claim.

Life without the possibility of parole saves precious taxpayer money while removing emotion from the public policy equation.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com.

 

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