New Bill Would Abolish California's Death Penalty

According to a recent study, if California were to rid itself of the death penalty and everyone on death row received the next highest penalty on the books (life without parole) it would save tax payers $184 million per year.

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

No state, certainly not California, can afford to waste public money like this. This is a state that has cut valuable social services and funds for education in the face of serious budget shortfalls.

The death penalty is a public policy failure that does not represent the best of our values as a society that says it is committed to human rights. It is a distraction from real solutions that could prevent violent crime and bring valuable services to murder victims’ families.

What could the state do with $184 million per year to improve the lives of Californians?

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Troy Davis And Our Unfixable Death Penalty

It has been over four years since Amnesty International released its first report on the case of Troy Davis.  In that span of time, three states – New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty, and 17 men have been exonerated from our nation’s death rows after their wrongful convictions were overturned.

Yet Troy Davis, whose innocence claim did finally get heard last summer, remains at serious risk of execution.  He was unable to prove his innocence to the standard required by the court, but the state of Georgia has been unable to remove doubts about his guilt.

It is a fact (and not a surprising one) that our criminal justice system is not perfect, and cannot resolve all questions before it, and it is interesting to note that all three governors who have signed abolition bills since 2007 cited this imperfection as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment altogether.

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First Steps Toward Abolition in Connecticut

By Helen Jack, Yale University Amnesty International Chapter Coordinator

 

Following the lead of Illinois, Connecticut took a step toward death penalty abolition. On Monday, the Connecticut Judiciary Committee, a joint committee of the House and Senate, held a public hearing on bills that would end execution in the state.

Along with a group of student activists, I traveled to Hartford to attend the public hearing. In the hearing room, we put on red stickers that read, “End the Death Penalty” and joined murder victims’ family members, exonerees, religious leaders, and other members of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty who were there to support abolition.

Eighty-two victims’ family members have signed a letter supporting abolition in Connecticut, and many of those family members offered powerful testimonies before the Judiciary Committee.  This follows on the heels of last month’s powerful press conference where 76 of the victims’ family members first announced their strong endorsement of abolition (see video above).

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Illinois Has Abolished the Death Penalty!

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Today, with the signature of Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty, and the third state to do it in four years.  The Governor also commuted the sentences of the 15 men currently residing on Illinois’ death row.  In addition to Governor Quinn, State Senator Kwame Raoul and State Representative Karen Yarbrough were key players in making death penalty abolition a reality in Illinois.  Please take a moment to thank them for their leadership.

No state has made a greater effort to “fix” their broken death penalty than Illinois.  A ten year moratorium on executions was established in January 2000, and since then various commissions and studies have attempted to grapple with the challenge of imposing an irreversible punishment in an error-prone system.  After over a decade of trying, Illinois politicians came to the conclusion that it simply cannot be done – that capital punishment in Illinois is beyond repair.  The system will always be prone to error, and the punishment of death will always be irreversible.

So they did the right thing, and indeed the only logical thing.  They abolished the death penalty.  Folks in other states where the flaws and shortcomings of capital punishment have become painfully clear should look to this example.  What was true in Illinois is equally true in Connecticut, Maryland, Montana, or for that matter any other state that still keeps the death penalty on its books.   The danger of executing the innocent can never be eliminated, the drain on the treasury will always divert resources from proven crime prevention measures, and the toll on the families of victims as they are dragged through a grueling process will always be both severe and completely unnecessary.

The Illinois experience has shown that, for both practical and moral reasons, the death penalty does not work.  It is an irreversible punishment in an imperfect world, and a cruel and degrading punishment in a world where we should be striving to respect and promote human dignity.   By rejecting the death penalty, Illinois has liberated itself from this failed experiment, and has scored a major victory for human rights.

Maryland Death Penalty Meets Globalization

As Maryland officials attempt to develop a lethal injection protocol that is acceptable to the courts, they have run into an unexpected roadblock – Globalization.   Pharmaceutical companies that produce the drugs used in executions are for the most part multi-national entities, either headquartered in Europe or with large business interests in that region. Capital punishment has been banished in Europe.  Extraditing suspects who might face the death penalty is forbidden, and exporting materials that might be used for executions has now come under intense scrutiny.

Sodium thiopental, the anesthetic Maryland (and all other executing states) had been using as the first drug in its three-drug protocol, was produced by Hospira, at a factory in Italy.  Now, because of controversy over its use in executions, Hospira will no longer make the drug at all.  A generic version of sodium thiopental is manufactured by a subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis, but that company has announced it will take all steps necessary to prevent its export to the US.  An alternative to sodium thiopental, pentobarbital, which has been used in Oklahoma and may soon be used in Ohio, is made by a company called Lundbeck, based in Denmark.  That company has already gone on record objecting to the use of their drug in executions, and it may only be a matter of time before Lundbeck takes steps to ensure that their drug doesn’t wind up in US execution chambers.

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Montana Senate Votes to Abolish Death Penalty

By a 26-24 vote, the Montana Senate yesterday voted to repeal the death penalty.   Twenty-two Democrats and 4 Republicans voted for the measure (SB 185), which now goes to the House.   This is the second straight legislative session in which the Montana Senate has endorsed repeal. 

This year, an abolition bill has already passed in Illinois, where it awaits action from the Governor.  And other repeal bills have been filed in states across the country, from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to Washington.

Abolition has become more appealing to state legislators in recent years as they have become more aware of capital punishment’s exorbitant financial cost, the dangers of executing the innocent, and the grueling toll the death penalty process takes on victim families.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Calls for End to Death Penalty

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer is a Republican who, as a state Senator, was heavily involved in passing the capital punishment bill that became Ohio’s death penalty law in 1981.  He is currently a Justice on Ohio’s Supreme Court and has been since 1993.  He was re-elected again last November.  Yesterday, after he was sworn in to begin his fourth term, he called for Ohio to end its association with the death penalty

Justice Pfeifer has watched as Ohio has become the second most prolific executioner in America (behind Texas), and he has expressed increasing concern that prosecutors have resorted to the death penalty too much.  Last May, he called for a review of all death sentences in Ohio,  saying that “few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.” 

Yesterday, he said of Ohio’s death penalty:

“I have concluded that it is exceedingly difficult for this statute to be administered in a fair and just way  …These are important matters that need all of our thoughtful attention — need the attention of the legislature to consider seriously whether we’re well-served by this statute any longer …The time has come for us to make that change.”

Judge Pfiefer’s speech begins, somewhat goofily, at 50:40 of the swearing-in ceremony video below.  He begins speaking about the death penalty at 1:09:28.

Illinois Death Penalty Abolition Bill Goes to Governor!

UPDATE:  Please call Govenor Quinn’s office and ask that he sign the death penalty abolition bill: 312.814.2121

This afternoon the Illinois Senate joined the Illinois House or Representatives in voting to abolish the death penalty.  The vote was 32 in favor, 25  against, with 2 abstentions.  If Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law, Illinois will become the 16th state in the USA to ban capital punishment, and the 3rd in the last 4 years.

And more states may be on the way, with hot debates on death penalty abolition expected in states as diverse as Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana

These debates and votes reflect the growing public disillusionment with (and in more and more cases rejection of) capital punishment, with its errors and biases, its ineffectiveness, and its dubious morality.

Whether Governor Quinn in Illinois will sign or veto this bill remains to be seen.  Stay tuned!

Illinois Death Penalty Abolition Bill Passes House!

Today, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to abolish the death penalty.  The bill (SB 3539) now goes to the Illinois Senate, which will debate and vote on it very soon.  (Those of you in Illinois can call the capitol switchboard at (217) 782-2000, ask for your Senator and say, “I’m a constituent and I urge you to support SB 3539.”  You can find out who your state Senator is here.) 

Governor Pat Quinn has been somewhat non-committal about whether he would sign it into law, but he has been a vocal supporter of the moratorium on executions which has been in place for over ten years.

Illinois is the fifth largest state in the country, in terms of population, and was once a regular user of capital punishment.  The moratorium was imposed back in the year 2000 when it became obvious that the state’s death penalty was massively flawed – more death row prisoners were being found innocent than were being executed.  No solution to these problems has been found during the intervening decade, while capital punishment has continued to drain the state’s treasury.

Abolishing policies that do more harm than good and cost a lot of money is just common sense.  Today’s vote reflects that fact that elected officials in Illinois, as elsewhere, are taking a more rational approach to the death penalty, and realizing that getting rid of it is the most sensible option.

Death Penalty Abolition Passes Illinois House Committee

After ten years of futility, trying gamely to make its irreparably broken capital punishment system work, Illinois is on the verge of saying “enough is enough.”  Today, a committee in the Illinois House passed a bill to abolish the state’s moribund death penalty, and the full House and Senate will vote on the measure before the end of this week.   Way back in January of 2000, a moratorium on executions was imposed when it was noticed that more people were getting off of death row because of their innocence than because of their execution.  This didn’t stop the state from continuing to try to have a death penalty, and continuing to spend millions of dollars on it.

Now, with efforts to fix their flawed capital punishment system proven to be a failure, state lawmakers in the House can decide to stop throwing good money after bad and vote to abolish the death penalty once and for all.  The Senate should do the same.  If you live in Illinois, or know someone who does, now is the time for all state legislators to hear from their constituents – by phone, by fax, by email … All Illinois constituents can use their address to find their state legislators’ contact information here.

Spread the word and make the call TODAY!