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History > 2012 > USA > Death penalty (I)



Use of Death Sentences

Continues to Fall in U.S.


December 20, 2012
The New York Times


Thirty-six years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, its use is waning, with prosecutors and juries preferring to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison without parole. New data for 2012 show that nine states executed inmates this year, the fewest in two decades, and the number of death sentences handed down this year — 80 — was about a third of the total in 2000.

“We have done polling on this, and the biggest reason is lingering doubt about guilt,” said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks executions around the country and released the numbers this week. “Between 90 and 95 percent of the people are aware that there have been exonerations based on DNA evidence.”

While a majority of states — 33 — still have the death penalty on the books, that number has also been on the decline. Connecticut banned capital punishment this year, the fifth state in five years to do so, following Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. Twenty-nine states either do not have the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in five years.

In addition, four states with histories of executing convicted murderers — Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — sentenced no one to death this year. Three-quarters of the 43 people put to death in 2012 were in four states: Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.

Another major reason for the decline is that the death penalty involves enormous expense and numerous appeals; some prosecutors say they prefer life imprisonment.

Stan Garnett, the district attorney in Boulder County, Colo., wrote recently that as his state considered repealing the death penalty, he would like his fellow citizens to know that he was “not morally or philosophically opposed” to it. But he considers the death penalty impractical because it is expensive, time-consuming and often unfairly applied.

“A 1994 Colorado death verdict currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court has cost the state of Colorado nearly $18 million to fund through all the appeals,” Mr. Garnett wrote. He said his office’s operating budget is $4.6 million and prosecutes 1,900 felonies a year.

In California, a referendum last month seeking to end the death penalty because of its cost narrowly failed to achieve a majority. But the 47 percent of voters who supported the referendum represents a much larger number of Californians opposing capital punishment than ever before. The state has not carried out an execution in nearly seven years.

A year ago, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, called for a re-evaluation of the death penalty system, saying it was ineffective. Asked if she supported the death penalty, she replied: “I don’t know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and, given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?”

Texas executed 15 people this year, by far the most in the country. But for the eighth consecutive year it executed more people than it sentenced to death, signaling that fewer executions will be carried out in the future, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, in Washington. The total number of people on death row in the country is 3,170, down from 3,670 in 2000.

James S. Liebman, a law professor at Columbia University, said he had studied the death penalty’s use by county, rather than by state, because punishment is sought at the county level, and he found that 60 percent of the nation’s counties no longer seek it. In addition, he said, some counties that in the past had led the country in its use, like Houston, did not hand down a single death penalty this year.

“A lot of officials have come to the conclusion that if they are concerned about deterrence and protection of their citizens and the diminishing of crime, the death penalty is not a very good strategy,” Professor Liebman said. “The counties that use it are ones that tend to spend a lot less money on law enforcement, criminal justice and the courts. They are using it instead of modern law enforcement.”

Professor Liebman, like Mr. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, noted that murders account for a small percentage of crimes, yet seeking the death penalty can take up most of a prosecutor’s budget. Death penalty cases usually involve two trials — one to determine guilt, and the other to decide on the death penalty — and better lawyers for the defense. In addition, prosecutors do not like to lose death penalty cases, so they tend to put in far greater effort and resources.

“If you get someone into jail, the likelihood of his committing murder will at least be lower,” Professor Liebman said. “In addition, most people on death row are never going to get executed. Death row incarceration is more expensive. It requires single cells because the inmates are considered more dangerous and more desperate.”

Mr. Dieter added: “Juries know that mistakes have been made and have lingering doubts about absolute guilt. Life without parole gives them an alternative.”

    Use of Death Sentences Continues to Fall in U.S., NYT, 20.12.2012,






Texas, Pennsylvania

plan executions of convicted murderers


AUSTIN, Texas/PHILADELPHIA | Thu Nov 8, 2012
1:00pm EST


AUSTIN, Texas/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Pennsylvania was planning its first execution in thirteen years on Thursday in the case of a man convicted of killing a teen-age girl, while Texas was scheduled to execute a man convicted of the 2002 murder of a woman during a burglary of her home.

Hubert Michael Jr., 56, who lost his bid for clemency before the Pennsylvania State Board of Pardons on Wednesday, pleaded guilty to the 1993 murder of 16-year-old Trista Eng.

Authorities say he grabbed Eng as she was walking home from her summer job at a fast-food restaurant in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, drove her to a remote area, shot her three times and hid her body.

He was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. (midnight GMT) at a state prison in Rockview.

Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999.

Attorneys for Michael say he has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder that can cause sufferers to have trouble with social situations, be uncomfortable with changes in routine or have heightened sensitivities to certain situations.

The attorneys have tried to argue that Michael's disorder prevented him from accepting a life sentence he was originally offered.

In Texas, Mario Swain, 33, was convicted of murdering Lola Nixon, 44, during a 2002 burglary at her Longview home.

When Nixon returned home, he bludgeoned her with a tire tool, stabbed her and likely strangled her, according to an account by the Texas attorney general's office.

Swain put Nixon in the trunk of her car, drove her to a field and left her there barely conscious. He led investigators to an abandoned car with Nixon's body inside, the account said.

Investigators connected Swain to a truck parked on Nixon's street the night she went missing. Swain first accused two other men of the crime, but both had alibis.

Swain's execution by lethal injection is scheduled to take place after 6 p.m. CST (midnight GMT) at the state prison in Huntsville.

If it is carried out, Swain would be the 13th person executed in Texas this year

Thirty-six inmates have been executed this year in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In Michael's case, attorneys were trying on Thursday to get a federal appeals court to halt the execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined on October 15 to review Swain's case.


(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan and Dave Warner;

Editing by Ian Simpson, Ellen Wulfhorst and Vicki Allen)

    Texas, Pennsylvania plan executions of convicted murderers, R, 6.11.2012,






Texas executes man who murdered girlfriend over money


 AUSTIN, Texas | Wed Oct 31, 2012
10:14pm EDT
By Corrie MacLaggan


AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A man convicted of fatally shooting his live-in girlfriend in 2003 after she refused to give him money was executed in Texas on Wednesday by lethal injection, said state officials.

Donnie Lee Roberts, 41, became the 35th person executed in the United States this year and the 12th in Texas. He was pronounced dead at 6:39 p.m. local time at the state prison in Huntsville, the state Department of Criminal Justice.

Just before he died, Roberts apologized, officials said.

"I am truly sorry," they quoted him as saying. "I never meant to cause y'all so much pain."

He added: "God knows I didn't want to do what I did. I loved your daughter. I hope to God he lets me see her in heaven so I can apologize to her."

His victim, dental assistant Vicki Bowen, 44, was found slain in her east Texas house in October 2003 when a co-worker, concerned that she had failed to show up for work, went to Bowen's home to check on her whereabouts, according to an account of the case from the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Roberts, who was a crack cocaine user, confessed to officials that he killed Bowen when she refused to give him money, the account said.

"I pointed the gun at her and I said, ‘If you'd just give me some money.' And she said, ‘No,'" Roberts told officials, according to the attorney general's account. "And then I said, ‘Look, it doesn't have to be this way.' That's all I remember saying to her. And the next thing I know, I shot her."

Roberts told a different story at his trial in 2004, saying that he picked up the gun because it was out of place, and that he saw what looked like another gun in Bowen's pocket.

Former probation and parole officers testified that Roberts, who had been convicted of armed robbery in Louisiana, fled from court-ordered supervision just months before Bowen's murder, the attorney general's account said.

During the penalty phase of his trial, jurors learned that Roberts had confessed to the 1992 murder of a man in Louisiana, the account said. He did not stand trial for that crime.

Texas has executed more than four times as many people as any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.


(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

    Texas executes man who murdered girlfriend over money, NYT, 31.10.2012,






Texas executes man for 1991 stabbing-strangulation murder


USTIN, Texas | Wed Oct 24, 2012
9:26pm EDT


AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas prison officials on Wednesday executed a man for the gruesome 1991 murder a women who was stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick and strangled with stereo wire at her Dallas-area apartment, state officials said.

Bobby Lee Hines, aged 19 at the time of the killing, was sharing a next door apartment with a maintenance man who had master keys to all the units in the building, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Hours after neighbors heard screaming and other loud noises coming from the apartment of Michelle Wendy Haupt, 26, her body was found just inside the door of her unit, covered with about 18 puncture wounds, according to a summary of the case from the Texas attorney general's office.

Hines' fingerprint and bloody palm print were found in the apartment. Haupt's gold sand-dollar charm was found in Hines' pants pocket.

Hines was put to death by lethal injection at a state prison in Huntsville, Texas. He was pronounced dead at 6:28 p.m. local time (2328 GMT), said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the criminal justice department.

Hines, 40, was the 11th person executed this year in Texas and the 33rd in the United States.

In his final statement, Hines asked Haupt's family for forgiveness, according to a copy of the statement provided by Clark.

"To the victim's family, I am sure I know that I took somebody special from y'all," Hines said. "I know it wasn't right, it was wrong."

He also said that God has forgiven him and that being locked up for the rest of his life would have been more of a punishment.

"I wish there was some other way to show I'm sorry," he said.

Hines' execution was scheduled for earlier this year, but it was postponed so that DNA testing could be conducted on fingernail clippings collected from Haupt's body. The testing did not exclude Hines as a source of the DNA, according to the attorney general's office.


(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Eric Beech)

    Texas executes man for 1991 stabbing-strangulation murder, NYT, 24.10.2012,






A Schizophrenic on Death Row


October 17, 2012
The New York Times


The Florida Supreme Court decided on Wednesday that the state can proceed with the execution next week of a 64-year-old inmate named John Ferguson. His lawyers immediately said that they will ask the United States Supreme Court to stay the execution and to review the case on grounds that Mr. Ferguson is mentally incompetent and that executing him would violate his constitutional rights as defined by the court in two earlier decisions.

The court must review the case. At issue are not only Mr. Ferguson’s life but also two differing interpretations of what constitutes competence: one Florida’s, the other the Supreme Court’s.

Mr. Ferguson believes that he is the Prince of God and that he is facing execution not for murders he committed but because of a conspiracy against him for being the prince. He believes that he cannot be killed and that he has “inner ears” so he can hear God whisper instructions. All of this is consistent with his being a paranoid schizophrenic, as he was diagnosed 40 years ago and many times since, including earlier this month.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who lacks the “ability to comprehend the nature of the penalty.” In 2007, the court clarified that a “prisoner’s awareness of the state’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it” and that evidence of psychological dysfunction may result in a “fundamental failure to appreciate the connection” between his crimes and his execution.

Yet this is not the way Florida sees it. Florida law requires only “awareness” — that Mr. Ferguson knows he committed murders and is set to be executed. On that basis, a trial judge ruled last Friday that Mr. Ferguson was competent and could be executed, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld that view, saying no “stricter standard” of competence is required.

Florida’s “awareness” test is plainly inadequate, because it assumes Mr. Ferguson has the kind of understanding of his situation that his delusions make impossible. Mistaken findings of competence like this have allowed states to execute scores of people with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

Beyond that, the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling is the law of the land and should be applicable to Florida. The court now has a solemn obligation to explain why Florida’s standard clearly violates the Constitution and to block this execution.

    A Schizophrenic on Death Row, NYT, 18.10.2012,






Texas puts to death man

who received three stays of execution


Tue Sep 25, 2012
10:32pm EDT
By Corrie MacLaggan and Terry Baynes


(Reuters) - Texas executed a man on Tuesday who had received three stays of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court because of questions about how forcefully his lawyers defended him.

Cleve Foster, 48, was convicted with an accomplice in the 2002 murder and rape of Nyanuer "Mary" Pal, whose naked body was found in a ditch, according to a report by the Texas Attorney General's office.

Foster had asked the U.S. high court for a fourth stay of execution but it was denied on Tuesday. He was pronounced dead at 6:43 p.m. local time (2343 GMT) at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas criminal justice spokesman Jason Clark said.

The U.S. Supreme Court a year ago granted a temporary stay of execution just 2 1/2 hours before Foster was to be put to death by injection. It was the third stay from the high court for Foster, who also was granted delays in January and April 2011.

Tuesday's request for a fourth stay was referred by Justice Antonin Scalia to the full court but just three of the nine justices -- Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- said they would favor another stay.

Foster's accomplice in the murder, Shelton Ward, died of brain cancer on death row in 2010. Foster maintained in his trial that Ward acted alone and that contact between him and the victim was consensual.

The two men and Pal were regulars at Fat Albert's bar in Fort Worth when, the night before Valentine's Day in 2002, bartenders said Pal walked out with them, according to the report. Pal left in her car and the men followed closely behind in Foster's truck.

Eight hours later, Pal's body was found with a gunshot wound to the head and wadded-up duct tape nearby, according to the report.

Foster is the 30th person executed in the United States this year and the ninth in Texas.

In his last statement, Foster sent his love to his family and friends. "I love you, I pray one day we will all meet in heaven ...," Foster said. "Ready to go home to meet my maker."

Texas has executed more than four times as many people as any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.


(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Bill Trott)

    Texas puts to death man who received three stays of execution, R, 25.9.2012,






A Stay of Execution


June 6, 2012
The New York Times

Doing what law and justice required, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on Tuesday granted a two-week reprieve to Abdul Awkal, who had been scheduled to be executed Wednesday morning. Mr. Awkal, who was convicted of killing his estranged wife and brother-in-law in 1992, has a long history of severe mental illness and has been found mentally incompetent by three courts in the past 20 years.

On Monday, a state trial judge found there was enough evidence to justify a hearing about Mr. Awkal’s sanity but that he could not hold one immediately because witnesses were not available. The Ohio Supreme Court should have granted a stay of execution, which it wrongly denied shortly before the governor stepped in because of the trial court’s finding.

That court can now proceed with a thorough hearing, which Mr. Awkal is due under Ohio law and under the Constitution. A defense psychiatrist who examined Mr. Awkal in late May concluded that he is “a severely mentally ill man” who suffers from “a chronic psychotic disorder” and delusions that “prevent him from having a rational understanding of the reason for his execution.” Mr. Awkal has said that he believes he is scheduled for execution because he angered the C.I.A.

The Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to execute the insane under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. It further ruled in a 2007 case that a state may not put to death a convict who does not understand the reason for his execution and that it must give the defendant a fair hearing about his sanity if he provides enough evidence to justify one.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, a convict may understand that he is on death row because of a heinous crime but may, nonetheless, be delusional in believing that he is to be executed for a nonsensical or unrelated reason.

Shockingly, it took Governor Kasich’s reprieve to permit Mr. Awkal to have the required hearing. But his story is not unusual. The death penalty system fails to take adequate account of severe mental illness, whether at trial, at sentencing or in postconviction proceedings. This is yet another reason the penalty should be abolished and further evidence of the grave injustices committed in this system.

    A Stay of Execution, NYT, 6.6.2012,






Death Penalty Repeal Goes to Connecticut Governor


April 11, 2012
The New York Times


HARTFORD — After more than nine hours of debate, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s death penalty, following a similar vote in the State Senate last week. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill, which would make Connecticut the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to abolish capital punishment for future cases.

Mr. Malloy’s signature will leave New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as the only states in the Northeast that still have the death penalty. New Jersey repealed it in 2007. New York’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the state’s highest court in 2004, and lawmakers have not moved to fix the law.

The vote, after more than two decades of debate and the 2009 veto of a similar bill by the governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, came against the backdrop of one of the state’s most horrific crimes: a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire in which Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were held hostage and murdered, two of the three raped, and their house set afire by two habitual criminals who are now on death row. Ms. Hawke-Petit’s husband, Dr. William A. Petit Jr., who was badly beaten but escaped, has since been an ardent advocate for keeping the death penalty.

The bill exempts the 11 men currently on death row, including Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes, the men convicted of the Petit murders.

The measure was approved by a vote of 86 to 62, largely along party lines.

The legislation will make life in prison without possibility of parole the state’s harshest punishment. It mandates that those given life without parole be incarcerated separately from other inmates and be limited to two hours a day outside the prison cell.

In a statement released late Wednesday night, Governor Malloy said the repeal put Connecticut in the same position as nearly every other industrialized nation on the death penalty.

“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” he said, noting that only one person has been executed in Connecticut in the last 52 years. “Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Thirteen proposed amendments from supporters of capital punishment, most of which would have allowed the death penalty in certain cases, were defeated during the debate, in which many legislators told personal stories of the effects of violent crime. The lawmakers also invoked a wide variety of people, from mass murderers to Immanuel Kant to Sir Thomas More.

State Representative Patricia M. Widlitz, a Democrat from Branford and Guilford, said that like many members, she was torn over her vote. But she recalled a murder in her community and the difficulty residents went through in explaining it to local children. “I just couldn’t reconcile telling them that it’s O.K. for the government to kill after teaching them that killing is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s immoral,” she said.

She added that the killer was sentenced to life without parole. “I think in many ways, that is a death sentence, with no chance of parole, no chance of doing anything with your life,” she said.

Republican critics of the bill said the exemption for those currently awaiting execution cast a cloud over the vote, both because it undercut the moral argument of death penalty opponents and because future appeals or government action had the potential to spare the 11 men.

“Let’s not mislead the public; let’s not mislead ourselves” said the House minority leader, Lawrence Cafero Jr., of Norwalk. “If it is the will of this chamber that this state is no longer in the business of executing people, then let’s say it and do it. You cannot have it both ways.”

But Democratic legislators — swayed by at least 138 cases nationally in which people sentenced to death were later exonerated and by arguments that the death penalty is imposed in a capricious, discriminatory manner and is not a deterrent to crime — voted for repeal. They noted that a repeal in New Mexico in 2009 that also exempted those already on death row had thus far withstood challenges.

After Connecticut’s repeal, 33 states will have capital punishment, along with the United States government when it prosecutes cases in the federal courts. Voters in California will be asked in November whether to abolish the death penalty in that state.

Capital punishment in Connecticut dates to colonial times. From 1639 to 2005, it performed 126 executions, first by hanging, then by the electric chair, and since 1973, by lethal injection. But since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of executions, there has been just one person executed in the state: Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer who voluntarily gave up his right to further appeals and was put to death in 2005. The last person involuntarily put to death, in 1960, was Joseph (Mad Dog) Taborsky, who committed a string of robberies and killings.

Of the 1,289 executions since 1976 in the United States, 935 were in seven Southern and border states. Texas alone accounts for 481 executions.

In the Connecticut Senate, where passage seemed most in doubt, the bill was approved 20 to 16 on April 5, with 2 Democrats and all 14 Republicans opposed. Democrats have a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Before that vote, Dr. Petit spoke at a news conference where he called for the Senate not to pass the bill. “We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders,” he said.

The Petit murders were cited by several opponents of the repeal, most vividly by Representative Al Adinolfi, a Republican from Cheshire, Hamden and Wallingford, who said he witnessed the chaos at the Petits’ smoldering house that day. He recounted gruesome details of the crime in arguing against the repeal.

“And we say here that Komisarjevsky and Hayes don’t deserve the death penalty? Shame on us,” he said. “They do deserve the penalty, and so do many others.”

But Democrats in favor of the bill cited support from many families of murder victims and the fact that capital punishment has long been banned by nearly all of the world’s democracies. In a review of 34 years of Connecticut death penalty cases, Prof. John Donohue of Stanford Law School concluded that “arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.”

The political fight over the bill could persist long after the vote. Republicans are likely to put the issue in play in the fall when all 36 State Senate and 151 State House seats are up for election. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of Connecticut residents thought abolishing the death penalty was “a bad idea,” though polls over time have found respondents split relatively evenly if given the option of life without parole as an alternative to executions.

In the final remarks in the debate late Wednesday, the House majority leader, Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden, said the death penalty offered a false promise that did more harm than good.

“I believe that we, as human beings, should not create laws that reciprocate the evil perpetrated against society,” Mr. Sharkey said. “Those laws don’t protect us.”

    Death Penalty Repeal Goes to Connecticut Governor, NYT, 11.4.2012,






Seeking an End to an Execution Law They Once Championed


April 6, 2012
The New York Times


PLACERVILLE, Calif. — The year was 1978, and the California ballot bristled with initiatives for everything from banning gay teachers to cracking down on indoor smoking. Both lost. But one, Proposition 7, sailed through: expanding the state’s death penalty law to make it among the toughest and most far-reaching in the country.

The campaign was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.

Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.

Partly, they changed their minds for moral reasons. But they also have a political argument to make.

“At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, cherries and (unsuccessfully, so far) black Périgord truffles.

“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”

California is not the first state to reconsider the death penalty in an era of questions about its morality and effectiveness. And even with these unusual advocates — and a new argument, that the death penalty has cost the state a fortune but produced only 13 executions in 34 years — the repeal faces tough going.

This is a state with a history of colorful crimes and criminals; polls here invariably find strong support for executions. Indeed, the older Mr. Briggs says that, unlike his son, his mind remains unchanged.

But Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller bring to this campaign a powerful and evocative story: a bid for personal redemption and a call for renewed consideration of the arguments they themselves once made in favor of the death sentence.

“It’s been a colossal failure,” Mr. Heller said in his Sacramento office. “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.”

Mr. Heller said that when the elder Mr. Briggs asked him to draft the initiative, using skills he learned working for the legendary Manhattan district attorney Frank S. Hogan, he wholeheartedly supported executions. “The fact that it was upheld every time it went to the Supreme Court shows it was well drafted,” Mr. Heller said ruefully. “I don’t take pleasure in that anymore.”

The two men add a personal element to a death penalty debate that is clearly evolving here, as opponents marshal an argument of waste in a state that is bleeding money. A report last year found that California was spending $184 million a year on a cottage industry of lawyers, expert witnesses and supersecure prisons to deal with the death row population created by Proposition 7.

“The cost is the most politically neutral argument,” said Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor and one of the authors of the report. “We’ve debated the morality of the death penalty for decades. We’ve tried very hard to focus on the objective cost issue, because that’s something that people who differ on all the other issues can reach a consensus on.”

Mr. Briggs said that argument “is going to capture a lot of Tea Partiers.” He continued: “Conservative Republicans should take a real hard look at it. I’m going to do my best to make sure they do. I have very good conservative credentials.”

A Field Poll in September found a jump in the number of Californians who would favor life without parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of first-degree murder, to 48 percent last year from 37 percent in 2000. Still, over all, 68 percent said they supported the death penalty for serious crimes. The report said that keeping inmates in prison for life would cost substantially less than executing them.

“Whenever you just ask about the death penalty in and of itself, the public continues to support it,” said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll. So the attempt to rescind it is “going up against established opinion, which is a tall order,” he said.

Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said cost “is probably the only argument that has any chance. The people have heard all the other arguments for years, and it has never gotten any traction.”

But he added: “Justice is what we have government for. Why forgo justice for dollars?”

Mr. Briggs and Mr. Heller are not the only high-profile names associated with the campaign to end executions. Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison, is one of the leaders, along with Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles district attorney. “We’re laying off teachers, we’re laying off firefighters,” Mr. Garcetti said. “This is crazy.”

Mr. Briggs said his views began to change after he learned about the case of a woman who had been shot and sexually assaulted in 1981. The attacker — who also killed a woman in the assault — remains entangled in appeals, forcing the victim to continue to face him. “I just thought about the horror for her that we did,” he said. “He committed a crime in ’81. What a lousy system.”

The other factor? “I started going back to church,” said Mr. Briggs, a Roman Catholic.

When he wrote the initiative, Mr. Heller said, he gave no thought to its cost. “I am convinced now that it has never deterred anyone from committing a murder,” he said. “In my mind, I realized what I did was a big mistake.”

The older Mr. Briggs, who is 82, was nationally known as an advocate of conservative causes, especially an initiative, which failed to pass, requiring the dismissal of homosexuals who worked as schoolteachers. Leaning out the window of his pickup truck along a narrow road on the farm, Mr. Briggs said the other day that he was as sure of the death penalty today as he was in 1978.

“One guy said to me, ‘How do you know it works?’ ” he said. “ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I went to see Aaron Mitchell get executed, and I never read in the paper that he ever killed anybody again.’ ” He was referring to a man executed in 1967 for killing a police officer.

“It’s the system that doesn’t work,” Mr. Briggs said. “Your car’s not working either if you can’t turn the damn key on, and they’ve turned the damn key off.”

How will he vote on his son’s initiative? “I’m going to vote no,” Mr. Briggs said with a laugh, flipping the ignition on his truck.

Not that Ron Briggs has given up. “I have made it my mission to get his support for life without parole,” he said. “That may be a high bar, but that’s my mission.”

    Seeking an End to an Execution Law They Once Championed, NYT, 6.4.2012,




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