Category Archives: Death Penalty

California Election Results 2012- Criminal Law Sentencing Initiatives

In Nov. 2012, California votes overwhelmingly approved an initiative to reduce the harshenss of the 3 Strikes Law. Under the newly-approved law, a crime can be Strike 3 (and result in a far longer sentence) only if it constitutes a “serious or violent crime.” The purpose is to prevent two strike offenders who shoplift or commit other non-violent offenses from being locked up for 25 years to life. The outcome of the vote is probably due to two main factors. First, voters are generally less concerned about crime than they were only a few years ago, when a very similar initiative was defeated. Second, voters are aware that the state spends a ton of money on incarceration, and the new law seems a good way to cut down on costs.

On the same ballot, an initiative to eliminate the death penalty was defeated by about 5 percentage points. This is a rather narrow margin of victory for death penalty proponents. A decade or so ago, they could have counted on about 70% support. The tea leaves seem easy to read– the death penalty is on its way out in California. WIth the availability of LWOP sentences- life with no possibility of parole- the death penalty is no longer the only guarantee that dangerous offenders will never be released back into society. Cost is also a factor. The cost of prosecuting capital cases and housing inmates on death row is immense, especially since most inmates sentenced to death remain on death row for decades and die before they are executed.

Troy Davis, the Death Penalty and LWOP

Georgia executed Troy Davis for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail on Sept. 21, 2011. Though Davis is black and MacPhail was white, the racial makeup of the jury (7 blacks, 5 whites) muted some potential claims of racial bias. Instead, the controversy over Davis’ execution was based on claims that Davis might be innocent. The conviction was based largely on testimony from eyewitnesses, many of whom have signed affidavits stating that their testimony was wrong. Some blamed the police for coercing them into false testimony,

Despite the recantations and the ensuing protests, the existing justice system has perhaps worked as best it can. Davis’ execution was postponed at least twice, and his attorneys appeared in court and contested the conviction. However, in the absence of DNA evidence (or other scientific evidence) that might have cleared Davis, judges refused to believe the witnesses’ recantations rather than their trial testimony. “Buyers remorse,” after all, is common: witnesses who feel bad about contributing to convictions (especially those that produce death penalties) often say that their testimony was mistaken.

Ultimately, replacing the death penalty with LWOP sentences (Life in Prison With No Possibility of Parole) is the only long-term solution to situations like the Troy Davis case. In the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, the criminal justice system is simply incapable of guaranteeing either that he is guilty or that he is innocent. Perhaps a clear answer would emerge in the fullness of time, but even postponed execution dates establish time limits that expire. LWOP sentences protect society in two ways. They guarantee that murderers will never get out of prison, and also guarantee that we will not carry out wrongful executions.

‘West Memphis 3’ Freed: What is an Alford Plea?

In one of the most surprising chapters in the controversial story of the “West Memphis 3”, the three Arkansas men — convicted of murder while still in their teens, and now in their 30’s — were set free today.

Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley have essentially agreed to plead guilty to the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, but the three defendants are also still permitted to proclaim their innocence.

Confused yet?

The judge in the Jonesboro, Arkansas case has allowed the “West Memphis 3” to enter a special plea agreement, commonly known as an Alford plea, which lets an accused person maintain their claims of innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution has compiled enough evidence that a jury could return a conviction on the crime charged. There’s some good background and discussion on this kind of plea here on

Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelly were given time served for their charges after the judge accepted their new plea bargains, and all three are under suspended sentences after being set free, this according to MyFoxMemphis, which quotes prosecutor Scott Ellington saying after today’s proceedings: “I believe this case is closed.”

The Alford plea gets its name from the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case Alford v. North Carolina, in which the Court upheld this specific kind of agreement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant. In that decision, the Court declared:

    “An accused may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even though he is unwilling to admit participation in the crime, or even if his guilty plea contains a protestation of innocence, when, as here, he intelligently conclude that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly evidences guilt.”

California’s Expensive Death Penalty

A new study confirms the incredible costs of California’s death penalty procedures.  The study’s authors, 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell, hold conflicting attitudes about the merits of capital punishment.  But they agree that California’s death penalty procedures exact untenable costs on taxpayers, and that the death penalty needs to be abolished or re-formulated.

The study’s most important bottom line is that California spends an additional $184 million PER YEAR on the death penalty, compared to the costs of trying and housing LWOP prisoners (serving life in prison without possibility of parole).  The reasons for the extra costs include housing (laws require greater security measures for death row inmates), longer trials and higher legal fees.

Of the 92 California death row inmates who have died since 1978, only 13 were executed; most of them died of natural causes while on death row.

California has a capital punishment system it can’t afford, run by a government that hasn’t been willing to change it.  Polling suggests still strong but clearly diminished for capital punishment.  Perhaps if more people understood that LWOP means what it says, and that LWOP inmates are never set free (except very occasionally when they are about to die), a majority of Californians will vote to spend their precious tax money on schools, medical care and community development rather than on the “worst of the worst.”

Christian Longo’s Plea: “After you execute me, please harvest my organs.”

Christian Longo is on Oregon’s death row, convicted of brutally murdering his wife and three small children.  A healthy man aged 37, Longo has made an interesting humanitarian proposal.  He will drop his appeal of the death sentence.  This will save the state a lot of money. He will also agree to donation of his healthy organs after he is executed.  Since Oregon has waiting lists of people desperate for organ transplants, Longo’s proposal could save many lives.

“Yes” to Longo’s proposal sounds like a no-brainer.  It sure would to me if I were in need of a transplant.  But Oregon and most states are totally opposed.  Jeffrey Orlowski, executive director of the non-profit Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, is worried about taking advantage of people like Longo: “As a country, we have a high ethical and moral standard that we shouldn’t do things to people no matter how disadvantaged they are.” What?  Our country’s high moral standards allow for executions, but not for organ donations?  Give me a break!

Undoubtedly practical problems exist when carrying out death row inmates’ wishes to become organ donors after death.  But moral and ethical problems?  Much better to find a way to provide for “Oregon” transplants!