Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Death Row Inmates Oppose Prop 34... But You Should Support It

This morning's fascinating story on the Chron brings us unexpected commentary about Prop 34: The voices of death row inmates themselves. And, as Bob Egelko tells us, they oppose the proposition.

Counterintuitive? Not really. Here goes:

It's not that they want to die, attorney Robert Bryan said. They just want to hang on to the possibility of proving that they're innocent, or at least that they were wrongly convicted. That would require state funding for lawyers and investigators - funding that Proposition 34 would eliminate for many Death Row inmates after the first round of appeals. 

Bryan has represented several condemned prisoners in California as well as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical activist and commentator whose death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman was recently reduced to life in prison. The attorney said California inmates have told him they'd prefer the current law, with its prospect of lethal injection, to one that would reduce their appellate rights. 

"Many of them say, 'I'd rather gamble and have the death penalty dangling there but be able to fight to right a wrong,' " Bryan said. 

 . . . 

Attorney Natasha Minsker, the Yes on 34 campaign manager, said the initiative would place now-condemned inmates "in the same position as every prisoner convicted of a serious felony in California," with the same right to go to court. 

They would no longer automatically get state-funded lawyers for habeas corpus claims, Minsker said. The main purpose of those lawyers now is "to save a person's life" from a wrongful execution, but that task would disappear if Prop. 34 passed, she said. 

No one has polled Death Row inmates on Prop. 34. But an organization called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty sent letters to 220 condemned prisoners in California and received about 50 replies, all but three of them against the ballot measure, said Lily Mae Hughes, the group's director. 

A few thoughts on this:

1. If anything, death row inmates' opposition to the proposition strengthens the position of those who support it for reasons of financial prudence. What the inmates want is the hope of receiving quality litigation, which is exactly the expensive good that proposition backers, particularly those of the libertarian persuasion, seek to eliminate.

2. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we worried about EVERYONE's innocence, not just that of capital inmates? I imagine after Prop 34 passes we will have to retool habeas resources in a serious way to improve litigation on behalf of lifers. And the next frontier is life without parole.

3. My pal Billy Minshall and I exchanged thoughts on this, and he speculated that, had anyone polled recently freed slaves in 1863 about abolition, we might have been surprised at the outcome. It's very difficult to imagine a more fair world when you've been making the most out of a horrifyingly unjust reality.

Props to David Takacs and Billy Minshall for alerting me to this first thing in the morning. Cross-posted to PrawfsBlawg.

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