Life & Death in the State of California
In the United States, the first known execution was of Daniel Frank and it took place in the Colony of Virginia. Frank was executed in 1622 for the crime of theft (University of Alaska). Since the time of Daniel Frank, the death penalty has almost always been a part of our criminal justice system, starting in the colonies and continuing in the United States after we won our independence. As far as the United States goes, I am going to start off in 1930 because this was when the Bureau of Justice Statistics, United States Department of Justice, first started to compile data on a fairly regular basis. From 1930 through 1967, 3859 people were executed under civil circumstances in the United States. Others were executed but they were completed under the jurisdiction of the United States military. During this period of nearly forty years over half of those executed (54%) were black, forty five percent were white, and the remaining one percent were from other racial groups – American Indians (a total of 19 executed from 1930-1967), Filipino (13), Chinese (8), Japanese (2). By far the majority of those being executed were men; only 32 women were executed between 1930 and 1967. During this same period of time the United States Army (and the Air Force) executed 160 people, including 106 executions for murder (21 involved rape), 53 for rape, and one for desertion. The U.S. Navy has not executed anyone since 1849 (University of Alaska).
Strong pressure from parties opposed to the use of the death penalty resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions for several years, with the last one taking place in 1967. Legal challenges to the death penalty led up to a 5-4 United States Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia. Furman v. Georgia struck down the federal and state capital punishment laws that permitted wide discretion of the application of the death penalty. The majority of the justices ruled these laws as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the due process guarantees of the fourteenth amendment. Only Justices Brennan and Marshall declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in all instances (Furman v. Georgia). Furman v. Georgia led to many new death sentencing laws. The first execution under the new laws took place in Utah when Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad for murder. Gilmore’s execution was the first execution that had taken place in the United States since 1967. From 1977 to 1997, a total of 432 executions had taken place. Out of those prisoners executed during this period of time, 266 were white, 161 were black, and five were other races. By the end of 1997, 38 states and the federal government had capital punishment law; 12 states have no death penalty (University of Alaska).
I had found the history of the death penalty in California to be very interesting, especially since we had gone to Folsom State Penitentiary the other week. But that is another story since we are starting after Furman v. Georgia. Anyways, the California Supreme Court declares the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state constitution on February 18, 1972. 107 inmates are taken off of death row and resentenced. This happened a full three months before the Furman v. Georgia decision was laid down. Later on August 11, 1977 the state Legislature re-enacts the death penalty and on November 7, 1978 the California voters take an even bigger step by approving an even broader set of laws that replace the 1977 statute. And on April 21, 1992 there was a landmark occasion; Robert Alton Harris is executed making him the first one since the legislature had brought back the death penalty in August of 1977. On August 27, 1992 there was a new method of death introduced. This was brought by lethal injection, inmates may now choose between injection and lethal gas (not gassing). Another inmate, David Mason was executed on the 24th of August in 1993 after he forfeited all of his appeals.
On October 4, 1994 the gas chamber was ruled to be cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. Lethal injection is now the sole method of execution left in the state of California. William Bonin became the first to be executed by this new means of execution on February 23, 1996 (D.P.Org. History). On May 3, 1996 Keith (Danny) Williams was executed my lethal injection, making him the fourth to be executed by the state since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Another person was executed on July 14, 1998. He was Thomas Martin Thompson; he was executed even though there was some evidence of his innocence. In 1999 two men were executed in California. The first execution was on February ninth with the death of Jaturun Siripongs, a Thai national. The second execution in 1999 took place on May fourth when a Vietnam War veteran, Manual Babbit, was put to death even though he had a history of mental illness and post traumatic stress. Three more people have been executed in California according to my information, one in 2000, one in 2001, and another in 2002. On March 15, 2000 Darrell Young Elk Rich became the first Native American to be executed since California’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. Darrell Young Elk Rich’s request for a sacred sweat lodge was denied. A sweat lodge is a purification ceremony that is equivalent to a Catholic’s last rites (D.P.Org. History). In March of 2001 on the 27th Robert Lee Massie was executed by the state of California. He had voluntary ended his appeals process after nearly thirty years on death row. Finally, on January 29, 2002 Stephen Wayne Anderson was executed by the state of California.
Capital punishment in California, as in every other state, is more expensive than a life imprisonment sentence without the opportunity of parole (D.P.Org. Cost). These costs are not the result of frivolous appeals but rather the result of Constutionally mandated safeguards that pretty much go like this: first, the juries must be given clear guidelines on sentencing, which result in explicit provisions for what constitutes aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Also, defendants must have a dual trial – one to establish guilt or innocence and if guilty a second trial to determine whether or not they would get the death penalty. As a last safeguard, defendants sentenced to death are granted three automatic appeals: one to the state appeals court, another to the state supreme court, and lastly one to the federal court.
These safeguards allow for many things. First they allow for a more extensive jury selection procedure. Next they make it possible for a four fold increase in the number of motions filed. The more motions filed the greater the chance of something happening that could possible benefit the defense. Also, these safeguards allow for a longer, dual trial process. This longer process is what helps to allow the four fold increase in motions. This longer, dual trial process makes it possible for many more investigators and much more expert testimony to be brought fourth in the courtroom. Since it is a death penalty case, the defense will typically get a lawyer that specializes in death penalty litigation. If someone is convicted after all of this they are also given automatic, mandatory appeals to help them. Since there are only a few defendants that would plead guilty when faced with a capital charge, virtually every death penalty trial will become a jury trial with all of the necessary requirements and expenses (D.P.Org. Cost).
There was a huge difference in the cost of a death penalty trial compared to other murder trials. A study was done out of U.C. Berkley by David Erickson that studied death penalty cases in L.A. County. This study found that the average cost to L.A. County in a regular murder case was $627,322. While on the flip side, the average cost to the county in a capital case was over a million dollars, actually it averaged $1,898,323 (Erickson, David).
As of the second quarter of 2003 there are 625 condemned people in the state of California (California Department of Corrections, Facts and Figures). To keep an offender on death row, it costs a little bit less than it does just to keep an offender locked up. It costs $26,894 a year to keep a condemned inmate on death row (California Department of Corrections, Capital Punishment). Assuming that the cost is correct, we know that there are 625 condemned inmates currently on death row in California so,
625 x $26,894 = $16,808,750 is what it costs to run death row in the state of California. Our prisoners are aging away. In 2002 the average age of prisoners on death row was in their early to mid-40’s. Taking into account that the average life expectancy for men of all races they could expect to live for another 26 or 27 years (California Department of Corrections, Life Expectancy). So, taking the $26,894 per year that it takes to keep them locked up times 26 years, you end up with a cost of $699,244 to keep them locked up for the rest of their lives (not factoring in inflation). The average cost of imprisoning a death row inmate is a little less than the cost of imprisoning your “average” offender. As I said earlier, it costs $26,894 per year for a condemned inmate while an “average” offender will run the system a little more money at $28,439 per year (California Department of Corrections, Capital Punishment). California considering its size and population does not execute nearly as many prisoners as other states do (Like Texas). For example in the year 2000 through 2002 California has only executed one inmate per year. In 1997, there were not even any executions that took place in the state. At the current rate, many more will die of old age than those that die by lethal injection. If the average age of a death row inmate is in his early to mid-40’s with 26-27 years left to live, many will die before they even get strapped in to the table.
One of the protections that our system allows are automatic appeals for those convicted of their crimes and sentenced to the death penalty. Under California law, inmates on death row currently have no more than three automatic appeals. One of these automatic appeals goes to the State Appeals Court. If the state appeals court upholds their conviction, the appeals process progresses to the State Supreme Court for another try to get the conviction reversed or to get another trial. After the State Supreme Court, the appeals process goes to the federal court system. Appeals definitely cost money. How much money? It is hard to say it varies from county to county, case to case. In California what really shocked me were the lengths that the government went to to try and keep death row inmates alive. If an inmate wanted to forfeit his appeals process California would force the inmate to appeal his death sentence whether he wanted to or not. These cases do not occupy half the time of the California Supreme Court. Take a third of 625, around 210 possible appeals, at most 210 could be before the California Supreme Court. It is probably well below 200, probably around 150. The California Supreme Court rules on more than 300 cases per year.
The trial process for a capital case averages around 1.9 million dollars in California while a regular life without the possibility of parole averages $650,000 (Erickson, David). So let’s start with a regular life without the possibility of parole case. The average age of inmates not on death row is 35 years. Taking into account that their average life expectancy would be 67 years, they would be spending 32 years in prison, on average. The cost of keeping these inmates incarcerated per year is $28,439. So adding up the 32 years at a two percent inflation rate will give you an incarceration cost of about a million dollars, or $995,933.78. Add this to the previously established cost of $650,000 for a LWOP trial and you got yourself a cost of $1.6-1.7 million for the trial and incarceration. On to the death penalty case.
The average age of a man on death row is in his early to mid forties. You also have to take in to account that the average time spent on the death row in California is ten years (California Department of Corrections, Capital Punishment). So ten years on death row at $26,894 a year on average. Adding up the ten years at a two percent inflation rate will give you an incarceration cost of just under $300,000, or $293,144.60. Add this to the trial cost of $1,898,323 and the taxpayers will be paying $2,191,467.60. Oh, you also need to add in the $86.08 that it costs for the three chemicals used to kill the inmates. You now have a cost of $2,191,553.68 for the taxpayers. There is a difference in the costs of both methods. It is $568,297.90 cheaper to incarcerate someone for life in prison rather than to give them the death penalty. Keeping someone locked up forever does reduce our public safety, but not to a degree that anyone should even worry about. Currently in California we have the lowest escape rate since 1949. In 2002 in the California Department of Corrections system, there were only 9 escapes from prison and all of them were out of level I facilities. There were 0 escapes from level II, III, or IV facilities (California Department of Corrections, Offender Escapes). In all of the information that I could find on the California Department of Corrections website life without the opportunity of parole inmates from maximum security prisons never escape in California. I was not able to find any information to show that the death penalty reduces murders in any way at all.
All of the information that I came across basically said that when murders are done, they are usually done in the heat of the moment so the consequences are not thought of, or when planned the person doing the killing does not care about the consequences. There are some social costs that are not factored into the economical assessment. For instance, the person being executed is a part of some family. Whether they see them of not, it will have an affect on the condemned inmates’ children, wives, family, etc.