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“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

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The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

California death sentences rise as U.S. total falls

As the number of death sentences declined nationwide in 2009, death verdicts in California rose to their highest total in nearly a decade, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.

All but 5 of the 29 California death sentences last year were handed down in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, the ACLU said.

Only 2 of the death sentences came from Bay Area courts, both in Contra Costa County. Darryl Kemp was sentenced in June for a 1978 rape and murder in Lafayette, a case in which he was identified through DNA evidence in 2000, and Edward Wycoff was condemned in December for murdering his sister and her husband in the couple's El Cerrito home in 2006.

Nationally, death sentences fell to 106 in 2009, their seventh straight year of decline and the lowest total since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to an earlier report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a separate organization.

ACLU leaders attributed the decline to public concerns about wrongful convictions and the high costs of capital punishment.

"All California communities would be better served if California opted for permanent imprisonment as a safe and cost-effective alternative to the death penalty," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

The group cited a state commission's 2008 report that said capital punishment was costing California $137 million a year. It would cost another $95 million a year to cut appeals times to the national average, the panel said.

The California District Attorneys Association disputed the report's conclusion that abolishing the death penalty would bring major cost savings. The association's executive director, Scott Thorpe, also questioned the ACLU's report Tuesday.

Rather than focusing on one year's statistics, Thorpe said, "you have to look at a number of years to determine what is a trend or an aberration."

He noted that death sentences had averaged fewer than 20 a year statewide in the four years before 2009. He also observed that last year's total was well below the 41 death sentences issued in 1999, the most since California reinstated its death penalty law in 1977.

The ACLU report, based on state records, pointed to one long-term trend, an increase in the number of blacks and Latinos on death row. They accounted for more than 65 % of the death sentences in 2009 and make up more than 58 % of the condemned prisoners in the state, compared with 44 % of the general population, the report said.

California has the largest death row of any state with 701 prisoners, more than 1/5 of the nation's total.

A federal judge halted executions in the state in February 2006 and said California's lethal injection methods were so sloppy and poorly monitored that they could subject a dying inmate to prolonged and excruciating pain. State prison officials are preparing to submit revised procedures to the judge.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2010

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