Orange County, California, 2009: Hitman Billy Joe Johnson is put on death row after conviction of first degree murder. However, he was only sentenced to death because he requested it. Carol J. Williams, reporting for the L.A. Times, wrote: “It wasn't remorse for his crimes or a desire for atonement that drove him to ask for execution; it was the expectation that conditions on death row would be more comfortable than in other maximum-security prisons and that any date with the executioner would be decades away if it came at all.” The principle and purpose of the death penalty is a righteous thing to uphold. In fact, punishment following the principle “an eye for an eye” has been practiced for centuries. Johnson’s decision to be placed on death row draws our attention to an inconvenient fact about the death penalty, however: that as it is implemented in today’s America, it serves an end that is antithetical to its original purpose and so ought to be done away with.
Death Sends a Message
Three codes written in ancient times exemplify early usage of the death penalty. Hammurabi’s Code, an ancient legal document in Babylonia, was created in 1700 B.C. This code had twenty-five crimes that were punishable by death. Surprisingly, however, murder was not among the crimes that were punishable by death. Instead, it was small crimes—like stealing a grape—that would be punishable by death! Was this done to promote justice? No. This was done to deter against stealing grapes. But more importantly, this was done to send a message: a message of King Hammurabi’s control.
The Hittite Code of the fourteenth century B.C. also identified a set of crimes that were punishable by death. Most of their laws protected the Hittite gods. Disrespect of any kind to these gods was to be punishable by death. This too was to send a message: a message that religion was extremely important to the Hittites. The Draconian Code of Athens was written in the seventh century B.C. This was one of the strictest codes of its time, punishing citizens for menial things such as arriving late to a civil meeting! Today, in American society, we would never imagine capital punishment for stealing grapes, disrespecting one’s religion, or arriving late to a meeting. All three of these ancient codes, although they were different in various ways, exemplify why civilizations employed the penalty of death: to send a message to society about what was important.
Let’s jump ahead some 2000 years and look at capital punishment in California. Capital punishment was established in California in 1872. Death sentences were conducted by hanging until 1937, when California switched to using lethal gas, and changed again in 1967 to lethal injection. In 1972, the death penalty was legally challenged in California and was deemed unconstitutional. For twenty-five years, no capital punishment executions occurred. Ultimately, a federal judge put California executions on hold in 2006, citing lethal injection “could expose the condemned inmate to pain that would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet, as recent as 2012, California voters have kept capital punishment a law.
So, what has justified capital punishment in the state of California? Among the crimes punishable by death were kidnapping if the victim dies, assault by a life prisoner if the victim dies within a year, first-degree murder under specific conditions, and treason against the state.
Justifying capital punishment for kidnapping, murder and treason shows that California upheld the principles of life and patriotism. But can the principle of life and patriotism be upheld if we do not carry out the law that the California voters have kept in place? Absolutely not. Failure to enforce the death penalty deems it useless, wasteful, and even dangerous. Death sends a message. And California is staying silent.
Cost and Failure Outweigh Any Benefit
The death penalty in California is a practical failure because it has failed as a deterrent to murder and this failure is not worth the cost. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, with numbers from 2014, the death penalty does not appear to affect murder rates. For example, Louisiana has an active death penalty and the murder rate is over 11 people per 100,000 of the population. Compare that to New York, which does not have the death penalty, but has a murder rate of only 4.5 people per 100,000. Compare Alaska, a state without the death penalty, to Virginia, a state with an active and quickly carried out death penalty, and their murder rates differ by only two tenths of a person. In case you are wondering, California’s murder rate is considerably low at 4.5 people per 100,000. Obviously, deterring murder isn’t being solved by the death penalty.
Not only does it not prevent crime, but it costs hundreds of millions of dollars. California is keeping the condemned living on death row for decades making appeals. Because of this, death row gets expensive. However, California is not the exception. The system also has proven a failure in other states across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “state[s] might spend more than 100 million dollars over several years and produce few or no executions.” How does this cost compare to a sentence of life in prison? Susan Taylor Martin, senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times, reports: “In Florida, the cost of prosecution, defense, appeals, and heightened security in capital cases is an estimated $51 million a year greater than what it would be to punish first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole.” The San Francisco Gate in September of 2012 also lists major costs for California, saying “trials and appeals have become so tangled and mired they drain the state of $184 million a year in legal costs. Changing to life sentences would slash that tab to just $11.5 million.”
That’s a savings of over $150 million dollars every single year! Not to mention an additional $65 million dollars a year in prison expenditures. Not only is the cost so great, but the cost is ongoing, because prisoners on death row are not being put to death, at least not for a couple decades. For example, a man in Tampa, Florida, who was convicted of strangling three women to death was put on death row in 1974. His death sentence wasn’t carried out until 40 years later. The problem is so bad that many death row inmates do die in prison of old age. Veva Leroy Nash was given Capital punishment in 1983. He was on death row until he died of natural causes at age 94. Kevin Johnson, writing for USA Today, said that “In California, wait times average nearly 20 years.” Practically speaking, capital punishment in California is a failure, wasting our money and resources, in addition to failing as a deterrent to murder.
Death Penalty Destroys Principles
California’s death penalty is not only a practical failure, but a principle failure, which is much, much worse. Remember, the primary purpose of California’s death penalty was to promote our highest held values—life and loyalty to the state. By justifying death as a penalty for taking a life, California is saying that respecting life is its utmost principle. I believe California is fulfilling the opposite of this original purpose. Remember supremacist gang member and hit man Billy Joe Johnson? He was put on death row in California because he requested it. Why would he prefer death row to life in prison? According to the L.A. Times article written by Carol J. Williams, “Death row inmates at San Quentin State prison…live in single cells…longer than the two-bunk maximum security [cells]…they have both access to telephones and they have contact visits in booths by themselves rather than in communal halls…they have exclusive control over the television, CD player, or other divisions in their cells…those on death row are also allowed more private property in their cells.” Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor, has spent 25 years documenting data about the controversial issue of the death penalty. He quotes an inmate, gloating about his life as prisoner, saying "Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three, well-balanced, hot meals a day?” A dangerous mindset is starting to settle into our society as the death penalty in California is still on the books, but never actually fulfilled. Murderers are learning that death row is nothing to worry about, rather it is something to be sought after. This sends society a message: that life does not matter. Its value is not above anything else.
Death Penalty is a Failure
I still believe that if carried out correctly, capital punishment would be a very effective tool for upholding America’s highest held values. But alas, the death penalty has proven to be a failure at its deepest level, and for that reason it should not be upheld in our state. It’s time for those of us who believe in capital punishment to admit it is doing more harm than good in California, and consider that when the policy is again given to the voters.