Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
On Election Day, California voters will wrestle with the death penalty, and it’s an issue the rest of the country should also consider.
The ballot measure, Proposition 34, would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as the most serious punishment for murder. Proposition 34 also creates a $100 million fund to help law enforcement solve rape and murder cases. And it could save the taxpayers $130 million each year in the process.
The alternative is for California to spend $1 billion more on a broken system over the next five years, in addition to the more than $4 billion spent since 1978 on a death machine that promises justice but fails to deliver.
The financial realities of the death penalty are stark, but the human toll is far more profound. Since 1973, 141 innocent men and women throughout the nation have been freed from death row, including three in the Golden State. They spent an average of 9.8 years on death row for a crime they did not commit — and some of the inmates were mere hours away from execution.
Typically, they were too poor to afford a lawyer, and more than 60 percent were people of color.
Death penalty supporters claim executions are fair and just and reserved for the worst of crimes. Yet, the criminal justice system is riddled with human error, bias and incompetence, factors that are amplified in the implementation of the death penalty.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 80 percent of capital cases nationally involve white victims, although whites are only half of all murder victims.
And according to the National Registry of Exonerations, perjury and false accusations are the most common factor associated with murder exonerations, found in 64 percent of cases. Official misconduct by prosecutors, police and other state actors comes in second place (56 percent), followed by mistaken witness identification (27 percent), false confessions (25 percent) and false and misleading forensic evidence (23 percent).
We should not take the chance of erroneously executing a man or woman. Once they are dead we cannot take back the mistake.
Californians may lead the way to a more humane criminal justice system on Nov. 6.
Other states should also follow through until we have finally ended the death penalty travesty in the United States.
David A. Love is the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national organization of exonerated former death row prisoners and their families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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