Death Penalty

Costs and Lack of Closure Cause Onetime Death Penalty Supporters to Switch Sides

A lawyer who helped draft a 1978 ballot measure to expand California’s death penalty is among those who’ve switched sides in the capital punishment debate.

Donald Heller tells the Los Angeles Times that he began speaking out against the death penalty in the state because he believes a “factually innocent” man, Tommy Thompson, was executed in 1998. But even before then, he saw as a defense lawyer how attorneys he considered “marginal” were being appointed to represent capital defendants.

The Times also quotes a county supervisor and a retired San Quentin Prison warden for a story about the political debate over Proposition 34, which if passed would make life without parole the toughest punishment in California.

Jeanne Woodford, the retired warden, has presided over four executions and tells the Times she became a death penalty opponent after meeting family members of victims on execution nights. “When you meet prior to the execution, they are looking at you with such hope, that this is somehow going to make them feel better,” she is quoted saying. “And then afterward, looking in their faces, it seems like it clearly didn’t give them what they were looking for. What is closure? I don’t think it is watching an individual get a needle in his arm and go to sleep.”

But the Times notes that beyond ethics, for many opponents the reason to abandon the death penalty comes down to cost. They estimate the system has cost $4 billion since 1978 and resulted in only 13 executions.

While death penalty supporters agree the system isn’t working, they say ending it isn’t the answer.

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