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Interview: Former San Quentin Warden Advocates for Anti-Death Penalty Initiative

| December 23, 2011
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Jeanne Woodford. Photo: Courtesy of Death Penalty Focus

Former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions during her tenure, is now a vocal opponent of capital punishment and the executive director of Death Penalty Focus.

She and other anti-death penalty groups and individuals are pushing the SAFE California Act, a ballot initiative that would eliminate executions, leaving life-without-parole as the most severe criminal punishment in California.

The California Report’s Scott Shafer interviewed Woodford this week about the initiative and the reasons for her opposition to the death penalty.

Edited transcript…

How optimistic are you that you’ll get the signatures for the ballot measure?

We’re very optimistic. We’ve been collecting signatures for almost six weeks and we have over 300,000. We need 504,000 to qualify. They’re not due until the middle of March.

Who’s funding the campaign?

We put out the statement of who has contributed to date about a month ago.  Included on that are some members from Google, Reed Hastings, and a couple of others. It’s on the campaign web site.

Why should we replace the current law with your initiative?

Our initiative is very simple. It ends capital punishment and leaves life without parole as the harshest penalty in California. Which is really what we have. Most individuals die on death row of old age and other causes other than execution. Because as you know we’ve had the death penalty as law for over 30 years, but we’ve executed just 13 people. And nearly a hundred have exited death row because of death or other causes.

The death penalty is so expensive, as the Alarcon-Mitchell report revealed. We’ve spent $4 billion on capital punishment in the past 30 years; if we continue down this path we’ll spend $9 billion by 2030. We rarely execute anyone; it’s been nearly six years since we’ve had an execution.

Law enforcement believes it is the least effective tool for preventing crime. Studies reveal it does not prevent crime at all, because for a punishment to prevent crime it needs to be certain and swift, and the death penalty is neither.

Life without parole provides for public safety. It keeps individuals in maximum security prisons for the rest of their lives. There is no opportunity for them to be released. Many members of the public don’t understand that is a real punishment, it is a harsh punishment. And it will save the state money.

And by eliminating the death penalty we eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person. As you probably already know, we have about 139 people who have been exonerated on death rows across the country. We have not had a California exoneree on death row, but we have many exonerees who have had life sentences. The fact that they had a life sentence allowed them to prove their innocence, and I think that’s very important for our culture and our society.

The campaign against the initiative – they may show pictures of Richard Allen Davis and Scott Peterson and the night stalker, Richard Ramirez…and the campaign will claim that this initiative helps them, asking why  they shouldn’t pay the ultimate price for the most heinous crimes imaginable…

Well the fact that the public recognizes every one of their names and pictures is a cause to end the death penalty. Their names stay in the media constantly and I think that’s so hurtful to the surviving family members. We’re not helping victims. Those same individuals, if they had been sentenced to life without possibility of parole,  would have been sentenced to a maximum security prison where we probably would have forgotten all about them.

I think it’s very hurtful and harmful to those family members to have to relive these crimes over and over again, and for the individuals you named to get as much attention as they do.

You presided over four executions. Do you think the death penalty is immoral?

I’ve always been morally against the death penalty. Many people who’ve been involved in executions have a moral objection to the death penalty, but we believe in carrying out the law, we’re public servants. A moral objection is not why I’m arguing for ending the death penalty at this point.

I ‘m arguing against it because it doesn’t serve us, it’s not a public safety tool. A public safety tool is preventing crime, and the best way to do that is to solve crime. Forty-six percent of homicides in the state go unsolved each year, 56 percent of rapes go unsolved each year.

As a public servant who has been in public safety for over 30 years, I believe the best way to protect our children, our neighborhoods, our communities, is to utilize the money we have been wasting on an ineffective punishment to solve crimes, to keep police on the streets, and that’s what our initiative does.

It ends capital punishment as the harshest penalty, leaves life without parole, requires all individuals serving life without possibility of parole to work while they’re incarcerated their entire life and to pay restitution to the victims’ compensation fund. And it allows a hundred million dollars to be set aside for three years to solve unsolved homicides and unsolved rapes in this state.

As you point out, the leading cause of death on death row is suicide or murder or natural causes, not execution. There are people who will oppose your ballot measure and say the problem with the death penalty in California is that it takes too long and we need to speed it up, not so that it’s careless but so that it’s more efficient.

The Alarcon-Mitchell report and the report by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice conducted a few years ago said that in order to fix — if there is such a thing — the death penalty, California would have to spend $100 million more per year.

This is really about choices. Do we have that money? You have to take it away from somewhere else. Taking police off the street makes us less safe. Ending programs for delinquent youth makes us less safe.

In other states where they have tried to improve or fix or hurry this along, they have found more innocent people.

And in states that carry out executions, they have some of the highest crime rates in the nation compared to states that don’t have the death penalty at all or California, where we haven’t been executing people for very long.

Why now? Has the public mood changed on this?

I think the public is concerned about the cost. We’ve had two very good reports that detail how much we spend on the death penalty and the fact we’ve had only 13 executions in over 30 years and that there’s so much litigation involved.

We’ve gone without an execution for six years; the costs continue to go up, so this is the right time for people to question how we should use our public safety dollars.

Any idea on how the governor will come out on this?

I don’t know. He’s publicly said he’s opposed to the death penalty, so I believe he supports ending capital punishment. But I don’t’ know what he’ll publicly say.

Thinking about the different interest groups who could wage campaigns against this — prison guards, district attorneys, police officer associations – what are you hearing from them?

So far we haven’t heard from those groups. But I think it’s really important to note that we have more law enforcement in favor of ending capital punishment.

We have Gil Garcetti, the former Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles County who fought very hard for many capital cases in that county, who now says it just doesn’t work. In addition there are other police and corrections staff across the state who have signed onto our initiative.

Any sitting district attorneys?

So far no sitting district attorneys. We know that there are some who don’t believe the death penalty is an effective tool. There are very few counties that continue to utilize the death penalty.

So far this year, there have been fewer people sent to death row than at any point since the death penalty has been put on the books. But even prior to the bad economy, there are only about 10 counties that continue to seek the death penalty.

There will no doubt be victims’ families who will oppose this and who will say they want these individuals to die for what they did to their family members…

I think that’s a very natural reaction, to want someone to die when they harm your family. These crimes are very horrific. So I understand that feeling.

But I will tell you that as time goes on, there are more and more family members of victims seeking alternatives to the death penalty. The death penalty doesn’t provide the closure that victims really need and deserve.

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 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.

When you were warden at San Quentin and presided over these executions, what was that like for you? And did you always feel that this is wrong and ineffective?

Each execution is different. Of the four, one was a volunteer who stopped his appeals — that was very different than the other three.

You go to work each day, 60 days prior to the execution, knowing that you plan to kill someone, and lead your staff through it.

In the case of the volunteer, you know that you are going to assist someone with what amounts to suicide. So it has an impact on you.

I don’t think you quite realize the impact until you walk away from the job. Because when you’re the warden, you’re the leader of a very large organization. All of your thoughts are about your staff, your mission, and keeping people safe.

I was the warden for five years…and every night I was awakeneed by a phone call for some emergency at the prison. So in that capacity, you don’t get to think about yourself very much.  Having left, I realize the impact that carrying out executions had on me.

In talking to wardens across the country, they have reflected in their involvement in executions and have the same feelings I do; it’s very hurtful. It’s very harmful to be involved in executions.

You know that you participated in the planning and training of your staff to kill a human being — and for what?

At the end of every execution, someone on my staff would ask, “did we make the world safer?” We all knew the answer was no.

The individuals that I was involved in the execution of had been on death row for years. The one volunteer wanted to die because he was old and so many aches and pains — he just wanted it over with.

So you’re executing people who are quite elderly, in most cases, or have been there so long and are so tired they just practically don’t care anymore. And you know you haven’t helped public safety.

That is really how we think of ourselves: as protecting the public. When you come to realize the executions have done nothing to serve that purpose, then you really wonder why you have done that at all.

To read alternative views from pro-death penalty advocates, Pro Death Penalty.com has an extensive list of resources, including official sites for 27 states that employ the death penalty as well as neutral and anti-death penalty sites.

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