By James Clark
Politics & Culture Reporter
Thirty-eight states currently implement the death penalty.
The United States Supreme Court ruled on April 16 that the protocol used by Kentucky concerning lethal injection was constitutional. The case took a close look at the risks of having an inmate suffer during execution due to the improper mixing and administration of lethal injection drugs.
In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, many states’ self-imposed stays of execution may be lifted. However, the moratorium placed on executions in California will remain in effect.
Although the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s method of execution as constitutional, associate justice John Paul Stevens spoke out against the death penalty itself.
“The imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes,” he said in a public statement at the resolution of the case.
Although disappointed with the court ruling, opponents of the death penalty were pleased to hear Justice Stevens’ opinion.
Natasha Minsker, the death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, said, “[Stevens] encouraged real honest discussion of the costs and benefits of death penalty. We feel that especially in California, that discussion is long overdue.”
The Supreme Court case in Kentucky draws attention to the existence of the death penalty in California and current issues with its policy.
“The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice was created to look into issues regarding the death penalty policy in California,” said Gerald Uelmen, the executive director of the commission, which is charged with examining past policy failures that may have resulted in wrongful convictions.
“We’re looking at what’s gone wrong and making recommendations on how to fix it,” Uelmen said.
According to statistics provided by the ACLU’s website, 123 people across the nation have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973. Furthermore, in California more than 200 people have been wrongfully convicted of murder, rape or other serious offenses since 1989.
Some of the key objectives of the commission have been identifying instances of wrongful convictions and analyzing policy in order to prevent future mistakes.
Furthermore, many take issue with the process by which California’s death penalty policy was created.
“There is ongoing litigation about the secrecy regarding execution protocol,” Minsker said. “The execution protocol in California was decided upon in complete privacy.”
Lance Lindsey is the executive director for Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment.
“The lethal injection protocol itself did not have the public scrutiny that these kinds of practices need to become law,” Lindsey said, adding that the protocol is invalid because there was not enough public input.
The current California death penalty was adopted by popular initiative in 1978. “The only way to change it is by initiative or two-thirds vote of legislature,” Uelmen said.
The death penalty is being challenged on a variety of fronts in California, and there are at least three current legal challenges questioning lethal injection protocol in California, according to Lindsey.
U.S. District Court judge Jeremy Fogel was concerned that the death penalty protocol led to pain and suffering for the individual, Lindsey said, referring to the Morales case over which Fogel presided. Michael Morales was convicted for the rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Fogel placed a moratorium on executions due to concern about the risk of improper mixing of the drugs used in lethal injection. The improper mixing and administering of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injection could cause severe pain that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“He stopped executions and asked the state to examine protocol, not just about how to use the drugs, but about a number of problems he saw concerning untrained personnel and cramped facilities,” Lindsey said.
Fogel has been overseeing the review of lethal injection protocol in California. The parties involved in reviewing the lethal injection policies will be presenting their reports shortly, Fogel said, and that the recent Kentucky ruling provided “important guidance for future proceedings in California.”
While legal battles are being fought over policy and procedure, there are roughly 670 people on death row in California.
With executions halted, support for abolition of the death penalty is growing. Lindsey added that many say they prefer life without parole to the death penalty.
“The support for ending the death penalty is as high now as it was in the late 1950s,” said politics professor Michael K. Brown, referring to the steady decrease in executions from the late ’50s. By the mid-’60s, executions had virtually ceased in the United States.
Currently Californians are divided about execution, Minsker said. In order to keep the community safe, it is better to stop execution and sentence people on death row to die in prison, he said.
“In the seven months that we’ve had no executions we’re as safe as we’ve ever been,” Lindsey said.
Another issue that the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus address is the financial burden that the death penalty imposes on taxpayers.
“The Hidden Death Tax” is a report located on the website for the Northern California ACLU. It is a breakdown of the costs of holding and executing death row inmates.
According to the report, “At the post-conviction level, California taxpayers pay at least $117 million each year seeking execution of the people currently on death row, or $175,000 per inmate per year.”
The largest single expense comes from the extra cost of housing people on death row, which is $90,000 more per year per inmate than general prison housing.
Comparatively, “executing all of the people currently on death row or waiting for them to die there will cost California an estimated $4 billion more than if all of the inmates on death row were sentenced to [life without parole],” according to the report.
“Money goes to executing prisoners, when it could go to putting more cops on the street,” Lindsey said. “Being against the death penalty is being for public safety — take funds used to kill people and invest them in security.”