This coming election Californians will decide on Proposition 34, which would outlaw the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would also direct $30 million a year for three years to investigate unsolved rape and murder cases.
The measure is the latest chapter in a seesaw legal and political dispute over capital punishment that stretches back 50 years in California.
But setting aside the main argument of the “Yes on 34″ camp, that the billions of dollars spent on the death penalty could better be used to solve crimes; and “No on 34″ backers, that the death penalty process could be made more efficient and cheaper, there’s another issue that often comes up in the overall debate.
Many supporters of the death penalty say it is the only fair societal consequence for the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and that it gives victims’ families a sense of closure. Scott Shafer has been following this question around the death penalty for more than a dozen years, and he frequently addresses the question of closure in his reporting.
Earlier this year, Shafer interviewed Mark Klaas, father of Polly Klaas — the 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her Petaluma home and murdered by Richard Allen Davis. Klaas has long been an advocate of the death penalty and opposes Prop. 34. He told Shafer that families say witnessing the execution of the perpetrator of a crime against a family member has helped them.
Mark Klaas: It does make a difference. It’s about carrying out the law. It’s about the final judgment. Those individuals I’ve talked to -– family members who have witnessed executions — are grateful for the experience, sad that it had to come to that, but satisfied that justice has been fulfilled.
Scott Shafer: What do you mean they’re sad it had to come to that?
Mark Klaas: Well the taking of a life is not something that should ever be looked upon lightly. And nobody finds great joy in it, including the families of murder victims. And they know this better than anyone else. But it is the law, and it is a final judgment…
I believe [Davis'] execution would bring closure to my daughter. She is the one that he contemplates as he acts out in his prison cell. It’s not going to change my life one way or the other. But I don’t invest a lot of time or energy in thinking about Richard Allen Davis. He’s dominated my family’s life quite enough as it is. I’m content to see him at least be on death row and know that at some point he may have to face that final judgment.
As warden at San Quentin Prison, home of California’s only death row for men, Jeanne Woodford presided over four executions. She says it’s a “natural reaction,” to want someone who harmed a loved one to die, but says she thinks that closure does not come to pass for families. Shafer explored this question with her in an interview he conducted late last year. Woodford told him:
People wait years for an execution that may or may not happen. People come to the prison thinking that the execution will somehow bring closure to them. I’ve just never had someone who that’s happened to.
In fact, I’ve had reporters tell me that family members told them a month or two after the execution that they regretted having been involved in the process.
Then there’s the story of Gayle Orr, whom Shafer interviewed 10 years ago. In 1980 Orr’s 19-year-old daughter was stabbed and killed near Auburn. Her daughter’s murderer was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Orr entered what she calls a “period of darkness” during which she felt isolated and consumed with rage.
Eventually she started attending and taking classes at church, where a common topic was forgiveness. A classmate suggested that Orr should forgive her daughter’s murderer, which at first infuriated her but ultimately prompted her to write a letter of forgiveness to her daughter’s killer.
“And the instant that I put that letter in the mailbox,” she told Shafer in that 2002 interview and confirmed in a phone call last week, “all the anger, all the rage, all the darkness that I’ve been carrying around, all the ugliness I’ve been carrying around in my body for 12 long years, instantly was gone. Just gone. And in its place I was filled with this sense of joy and love. And I was truly in a state of grace, simply from offering forgiveness to another human being.”
It’s now been 20 years since Orr mailed that letter. Since then she has created a foundation in her daughter’s name, dedicated to forgiveness and a peaceful world. Orr changed her name to “Aba Gayle,” which she says means “beloved of the Father,” and she is “totally and absolutely opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances.”
She believes that carrying anger and rage toward another person perpetuates one’s sense of being a victim. “Being a victim is a choice,” she says “and I have chosen not to be a victim any longer. … Not only did I heal myself, I healed my whole family. When you’re filled with rage, you can’t be a wife, you can’t be a mother, so healing that rage does so much benefit, not just to me, but to everyone around me.”
Aba Gayle said she still grieves for her daughter, and while she doesn’t believe her daughter’s murderer should be executed, she believes he should spend his life in prison.