California: With state executions on hold, death penalty foes rethink ballot strategy

California advocates of abolishing the death penalty got a jolt of momentum in March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would not allow any executions to take place while he was in office.
But after trying twice this decade to persuade voters to end capital punishment, they have no plans to go to the ballot again in 2020. Rather than seeking to build on Newsom’s temporary reprieve for Death Row inmates, activists are taking their own pause.
Grappling with the legacy of their two failed initiatives, advocates are reassessing their strategy and retooling their message. Natasha Minsker, a political consultant who has long been involved with abolition efforts, said the governor’s moratorium has given advocates the opportunity to do long-term planning.
“There’s this excitement and energy in our movement that we haven’t had in a long time,” Minsker said.
Newsom’s executive order caught many Californians by surprise. Although he supported the unsuccessful ballot measures to abolish t…

Death penalty 'exonerations'

Recently, I made another reference to the number of Death Row inmates across the country who have been spared execution because of exonerations of one form or another. The Death Penalty Information Center keeps this count -- it is presently 133 -- and it has been verified elsewhere in the mainstream press. When I first started using the numbers from DPIC, I conducted Sun archive and Internet searches to independently check the exonerations, and found a large sampling of them to be accurate.

But, at the same time, I think "exonerations" should only be used when a person is convicted but later found to be innocent of the murder that resulted in a sentence of death. That is the popular meaning of "exoneration," and yet the DPIC uses it to cover those whose convictions have been overturned because of legal flaws.

A reader of my column wrote to challenge my acceptance of the word "exoneration" as shorthand for all those who have been removed for various reasons from Death Row. The reader cited a report of a victims' rights organization, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which challenged the DPIC numbers and definition of "exonerated."

Here is the reply to questions about the accuracy of the exonerations list from Richard Dieter, DPIC director.

The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on the death penalty in the U.S. We do not have a position on the morality or rightness of the death penalty per se, though a number of our reports focus on the problems in capital punishment and hence have been critical of the way it is applied.

With respect to your question about our list of exonerated individuals, we use very strict and objective criteria for inclusion of cases on this list. Basically, the list is determined by the decisions of courts and prosecutor offices, not by our subjective judgment. As we state in a number of places on our Web site and in our reports, the criteria for inclusion on the list is:

Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-

a) their conviction was overturned AND
i) they were acquitted at re-trial or
ii) all charges were dropped
b) they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.

The list includes cases where the release occurred in 1973 or later, which was the time that states resumed sentencing people to death after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty. The list originated from a request from Congress asking us to identify the risks that innocent people might be executed. The original list that we prepared was published as a Staff Report of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. The list has been favorably referred to by Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, as well as by many public officials around the country.

We believe the term "exonerated" is entirely appropriate to refer to the individuals on this list, which now numbers 133 individuals. Exonerate means to clear, as of an accusation, and seems to come from the Latin "ex" and "onus" meaning to unburden. That is precisely what has occurred in these cases. The defendants were convicted, given a burden of guilt, and then that burden was lifted when they were acquitted at a re-trial or the prosecution dropped all charges after the conviction was reversed. These are not individuals who received a lesser sentence or who remained guilty of a lesser charge related to the same set of circumstances. All guilt was lifted by the same system that had imposed it in the first place. Our justice system is the only objective source for making such a determination.

This notion of innocence, that an individual is innocent unless proven guilty, is a bedrock principle of our constitution and our societal protection against abusive state power. One does not lose the status of innocence merely because a prosecutor or other individuals retain a suspicion of guilt. Of course, it is true that this list makes no god-like determination of knowing exactly what happened in the original crime. Such perfect knowledge of past events is impossible, either to absolutely prove that a person did or did not do an act. We do not try to make a subjective judgment of what we think happened in the crime. We are merely reporting that in a great many cases the justice system convicted an individual and sentenced them to death, but when the process that arrived at that conclusion was reviewed, the conviction and sentence were thrown out. The individual, who often came close to execution, could not even be convicted of a traffic violation. Surely, that should be a cause of concern in applying the death penalty.

Maybe "exoneration" isn't the most accurate word here. But Dieter has a point -- if a conviction was wrongly achieved, our system says that conviction is thrown out and the the justice system returns to square one for the accused. However you shake this, at least 133 people were put on Death Row and slated for execution who should not have been there. These were near-fatal mistakes, in the eyes of our system, way too much imperfection in the area of criminal justice, above all, that requires perfection.

Source: Random Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun, July 6, 2009

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