Friday, September 2, 2011

Marin Interfaith Council Considers Death Row

Jeanne Woodford, former Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Warden of San Quentin State Prison, and current Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, spoke about capital punishment at Marin Interfaith Council's August clergy luncheon.
By way of background, Jeanne grew up on a ranch in western Sonoma County and went to school in West Marin. So she’s a local gal. Daughter of an Italian Catholic father, she “grew up believing you took care of each other.” In 1970, within two weeks of having been graduated from Sonoma State College, she began working at San Quentin. She loved the work; she felt she was doing something positive. She remained for 26 years.
Over the course of her tenure at San Quentin, she found that the prevailing philosophy and practice of imprisoning criminals became punitive rather than rehabilitative, in spite of addition, in 2005, of the words “and Rehabilitation” to the name of the institution: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She contends that changing prison policy to one of punishment for crimes led to more recidivism and more violence.
Inmates’ chances of turning their lives around depend in large part upon their remaining a part of their family and community outside of prison. Religious communities provide some of this support, and in the case of San Quentin, its location in Marin County brings about more religious support than is available at other prisons, particularly those in more remote locations.
Although she has personally opposed capital punishment all her life, and that as an authority she was taught not to judge, as Warden of San Quentin, which houses California’s Death Row, Ms. Woodford presided over four executions. This involved leading the prison staff through preparations and rehearsals for those executions. Among other things, she went to every single cellblock – those sentenced to death each has a cell to him or herself, adding to costs associated with capital punishment – on the day of the execution.
Ms. Woodford told of us an inmate named Massey, who, tired after years of “living” in the miserable place that is Death Row with his imminent execution looming, sought a speedier execution as a form of suicide.
Each death sentence requires two costly trials: one trial is to prove guilt or innocence; the other is to determine the penalty. Jurors who serve in cases where the death penalty is being sought must not oppose capital punishment. This limits and skews the pool of potential jurors.
Capital convictions entail further expense because they carry an automatic appeal. It is these appeals that cost the state thousands of dollars. In fact, capital cases cost twenty times more than non-capital cases to pursue and bring to conclusion.
In addition, there is the possibility of a wrongful conviction. One of those so sentenced, a man named Carillo, who was convicted by no fewer than 16 eyewitnesses, later was exonerated by DNA evidence in testing that was not available at the time of sentencing. However, DNA exists in only 20% of homicide cases. How many other innocent people may have been executed? Is there any justification for executing an innocent person, no matter how convincing the evidence? No.
Eventually Ms. Woodford came to believe she could do more to effect change from without the prison system than she could from within. She now works with Death Penalty Focus for the repeal of the capital punishment.
One of the several approaches DPF is taking, under her direction, is that of identifying law enforcement personnel who oppose the death penalty. This may be easier than it would seem at first consideration. DPF will soon release a list of more than 100 names.
Another project is getting 1,400 religious congregations to publicly support the goals of DPF, the abolition of capital punishment.[1]
DPF also seeks to raise awareness of victims to seek more than retributions. Further, funds not expended on perpetuating this irreversible punishment can be put to better use in solving the 46% of homicides that currently go unsolved. I suspect that victims’ families would find some sense of relief when their loved one’s murder is solved. Then trial and the pursuit of justice for the wrong can proceed.
In her work, Ms. Woodford never encountered a family member who advocated, and witnessed, the execution of the person who murdered their loved one who achieved any sense of relief, retribution, or restoration of balance. Killing the perpetrator, which I consider to be state-sanctioned homicide, does not bring back the dead loved one. In the words of the San Diego County District Attorney, the death penalty is “a hollow promise to victims.”
I would like to see some of the people involved in this effort, particularly those who survive the murder of a loved one, come into contact with the good folks at the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. I know that forgiveness can be difficult to achieve. I know it’s easy for me to advocate forgiveness when I do not have the experience of having lost a loved one to homicide. But there are others who have. I know that forgiveness is not for the benefit of the forgiven, although they may benefit. Rather, it unburdens the wronged party(ies) and liberates them to go on with their lives, still honoring the memory of those they’ve lost.
Then there is the matter of exonerees. Besides the case of Mr. Carillo mentioned above, Ms. Woodford told of another inmate, a woman named Gloria Killum, who was convicted as a result of false evidence and prosecutorial misconduct. Of the more than 200 men and women in California who were convicted of serious crimes, then subsequently found to have been wrongfully convicted, six had been sentenced to death. Such groups as the Innocence Project are finding innocent people every day. The recent release of the West Memphis Three is a prime example.
Further, many studies have shown, and experts agree, that the threat of capital punishment doesn’t deter people from committing murder and other violent crimes.
Worse still, the death penalty is inequitably applied: far more minorities are sentenced to death than are Euro-Americans. When the color of the convict determines the sentence, this is not blind justice. It is not justice at all.
The recent Alarcon study concluded that the death penalty costs California $184 million a year. It costs $100,000 more per inmate to house those sentenced to death than it does for non-capital inmates. There are presently 714 people, 15 of whom are women, living on Death Row. A psychiatric social worker has to visit each inmate every day, which increases the cost.
Funding of the DoCR accounts for 11% of the state’s General Fund; it used to be only 5%. By abolishing the death penalty, California could save a billion dollars in only five years. Think of the many ways that kind of money could be used. It could put more cops on the streets. It could be used to solve crimes. It could be used for education and after-school programs, giving at-risk youth knowledge and skills so they have a better chance at success in their lives. Accomplished, learned, self-assured people have more hope and less despair, and are less likely to be lured into lives of violence.
I would prefer that we as a society explore the notion of restorative justice. Although an exploration of the concept and application of restorative justice is beyond the scope of this entry, I encourage readers to consider it.
After Ms. Woodford’s talk, we engaged in conversation at our tables. One of the topics at my table was the matter of justice, fairness, and retribution. We discussed the differences, what each meant. I see crime as a rent in the fabric of society, one that needs to be mended. We need to rebalance “wrong” with “right,” to reweave the cloth into a whole again.
To be fair, MIC provided the opportunity for a member who supports the death penalty to rebut Ms. Woodford’s claims. The Rev. Rob Geiselmann, brave soul that he was in that company, spoke of freedom, of liberty being on a part with life. He contended that society needs to feel a sense of public justice.
Although last week a bill proposed by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) to put the death penalty on the California ballot was defeated, we should not take this as a final defeat. We need to keep putting forth measures to abolish capital punishment in the State of California until they are approved. Then voters, the majority of whom polls show do not support the death penalty, can put this shameful and dishonorable practice in our past.
It is programs such as this put on by my local interfaith council that inform, enrich, and provoke us to think and rethink previously held opinions that make interfaith work so satisfying and worthwhile. I encourage other groups, whether they are interfaith organizations or any other kind, as well as individuals, to consider sponsoring such talks. I’m confident that Jeanne Woodford would make time for you in her busy schedule.
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Aline O’Brien, aka Macha NightMare, is a Pagan presence in Marin Interfaith Council, where she serves on the Justice Advocacy Team.

[1] If I had a formal congregation of my own, I’d gladly sign such a statement. As it is, the Covenant of the Goddess, the religious organization of groups and individuals I represent in the interfaith arena, is too diverse to achieve unanimity on this issue.

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