Panel tells Sierra College students about state’s death penalty flaws

Experts talk race, process, economics of execution
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Hundreds of Sierra College students packed the Dietrich Theatre in Rocklin to capacity Thursday to listen to a panel discussion from legal experts on California’s death penalty – what was mostly described as a broken system.

The presentation depicted a broken system featuring a racially disproportionate death row flooded with inmates, many who have to wait years to get proper legal representation.

Costs are high, be it morally or economically, they said.

Part of the Cesar E. Chavez Higher Education Speaker Series, the “American Executions” panel included UC Davis associate professor of Chicana/Chicano studies Miroslava Chavez-Garcia; former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso; criminal defense attorney Timothy Foley; former Sacramento federal public defender Quin Denvir; and attorney Paul Comiskey.

Hon. David De Alba, California Superior Court judge, moderated the panel and said last year alone the state spent $180 million on costs associated with the death penalty.

That’s one point of emphasis Sierra College communications major Demi Walton, of Roseville, said she took away from the discussion. 

“How much money that’s put into it is crazy,” Walton said. “First of all, I don’t like the (death penalty) anyway … and I think that things that benefit us more like school and things like that, that’s where money should be going. Not to try to hurt other people.”

Though the speaker series is billed as offering a “diversity of viewpoints,” none of the panelists spoke in support of the death penalty, and Comiskey had been the most outspoken against it – saying it should be abolished. Proposition 34 on the November 2012 ballot to repeal the state’s death penalty was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent.

Reynoso shed light on one of the more difficult judicial decisions he’s had to make involving the death penalty appeal of a man who allegedly disarmed and shot to death two highway patrolmen.

“I thought everything had been done properly, and so I wrote an opinion affirming the death penalty and the majority of the justices in the court agreed with me. And I had real qualms about it,” said Reynoso, who served as an associate justice for the state’s Third Court of Appeals from 1976-82 before presiding over the supreme court until 1987.

“How one young man who was not armed would have had the power to do that, it seemed odd to me, let’s put it that way,” he said. “Nonetheless, there was a witness, his girlfriend, who said, ‘Yes, you did it, and this is how he did it.’ So it seemed to me it was up to the jury to make that decision.”

The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, has taken up the case, Reynoso said.

California has not executed a prisoner since 2006 while problems with the lethal injection method have been under litigation, Foley said.

The state has the most populated death row in the nation, he said. Currently, there are more than 750 inmates awaiting the death penalty in California, Denvir said.

Between 30 and 50 death penalties are handed down in California every year, Foley said, and the system makes its way through the courts at a slow pace some would call “dysfunctional.”

Some inmates will spend up to seven years waiting on death row for a lawyer, and once their case goes to a federal appeals court, some ultimately have their dispositions reversed entirely, while others have their sentence reversed, Denvir said.

Currently there are about 130 inmates on death row who do not have an appeals lawyer, he said.

Comiskey founded the Prison Law Office outside the gates of San Quentin Prison, and the racial makeup of his clientele struck him.

“You would think by what I saw in San Quentin that the population of California was 36 percent black, 45 percent Latino and about 17 percent white,” he said. “The entire criminal justice system in California, like in other states in our country, is very racist and it can’t help it.”

Comiskey cited a study conducted in the state of Georgia that found the race of the victim in a crime significantly affected whether or not the offender would be sentenced to death.

“If you killed a black person or killed a white person, you’re four or five times more likely to get the death penalty for killing a white person. It’s racist,” he said. “If it were applied equally, we wouldn’t have it anymore.”

On student asked what could be done to change the disproportion of race in jails, prisons and death penalties.

“In a democracy how you change those things you talk about is an informed and educated citizenry which then understands governance which then translates into an informed electorate that participates,” De Alba said. “And that’s generally how you change things in a democracy.”


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews