Among the dozens of ballot measures now gathering signatures in California — is one seeking to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life sentences without the possibility of parole.
It’s chief proponent is Jeanne Woodford.
“I’m arguing for ending the death penalty because it doesn’t serve us” says Woodford. “It’s not a public safety tool.”
You might say Woodford is an unlikely opponent of the death penalty. As warden of San Quentin Prison, she presided over four executions.
“I tell people at the end of every execution someone on my staff would ask ‘Did we make the world safer tonight?’ And we all knew the answer was no,” said Woodford.
Today, Woodford is director of Death Penalty Focus, a non-profit fighting capital punishment. Woodford thinks deliberately killing inmates is immoral. But her main arguments against it: The death penalty doesn’t deter crime, it costs too much and it doesn’t help victims’ families move beyond their horrible loss.
“You know I think people wait years for an execution that may or may not happen,” said Woodford. “I mean people come to the prison hoping that that execution will somehow bring closure to them and I’ve never had anyone say that it did.”
Don’t tell that to Marc Klaas. His 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped, assaulted and murdered by Richard Allen Davis. Davis has been on death row since 1996. And while there is no execution date, Klaas knows where he’ll be the day Davis is scheduled to die.
“I’ll spend that day in the execution chamber watching him,” said Klaas. “And i would hope the last thing he’d see is my eyes — just as the last thing my daughter saw before he strangled the life out of her — after he raped her — were his eyes.”
Woodford’s initiative is retroactive — so if it makes it to the ballot and passes, all 719 people on death row — including Richard Allen Davis — would get a reprieve. Their death sentences would revert to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
State Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate won’t say where he stands on the death penalty. But, in an interview last year before this initiative was written, he acknowledged the difficulties of implementing it.
“We have enormous responsibilities and the regulatory and legal hurdles are significant,” said Cate. “It is very complex.”
But efforts to expedite capital punishment — by shortening the appeals process for example — have all failed in the State Legislature.
Opponents of executions say ending the death penalty could save the state more than a $100 million, a figure cited by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.
Well it would be less expensive and less complicated, that’s for sure,” said Cate. “But the real debate hinges on whether those costs and complexities are worthwhile.”
The campaign to end capital punishment is well funded. Supporters have raised more than a million dollars. But if their measure gets on the ballot, it’s sure to face powerful opposition, from law enforcement organizations and crime victims groups. Proponents have until mid-March to collect their signatures.
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