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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

California: Yes on Prop. 34, death penalty repeal

Execution chamber and witness room
at San Quentin prison, California
California's death penalty has not satisfied anyone since it was reinstated 35 years ago. Those who are morally opposed to capital punishment decry the 13 lives taken by the state. Those who believe the death penalty brings justice and closure are frustrated that the average time between sentence and execution is 25 years.

"I have concluded that it is dysfunctional and cannot be fixed," said Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles district attorney who supports capital punishment but argues that the way it is imposed in California is "a colossal waste of money."

Garcetti has become a leading spokesperson for Proposition 34, which would reduce the maximum penalty for murder to life without the possibility of parole.

Taxpayers have spent about $4 billion in expenses related to California's capital cases since its reinstatement - working out to more than $300 million for each execution, according to a 2011 analysis by federal judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell. They called the state's death-penalty system "a debacle" - with its costs expected to reach $9 billion by 2030.

Donald Heller, an attorney who authored a 1978 ballot initiative that greatly expanded the definition of capital crimes, has become a prominent advocate for repealing the death penalty. Heller said he wrote the measure to meet constitutional muster - which it did - without analyzing its fiscal impact.

"I thought the ultimate punishment would save money and end victim grief with finality," he wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News. "I did not account for multiple defense lawyers, expert witnesses including scientists, jury consultants and investigators; nor did I consider the cost of countless appeals and habeas corpus petitions." Among the many factors contributing to delays: a severe shortage of experienced death-penalty lawyers.

To streamline the process would require "a huge additional expenditure" that would include a special court for death penalty appeals, Heller noted.

And there are limits to how much the process can be expedited without elevating the risk of executing an innocent person.

It would be far wiser for California to concentrate its resources on the most indisputable deterrent to violent crime: raising the odds that a perpetrator will be found and convicted.

Prop. 34 advances that goal by directing most of the savings toward investigations of homicide and rape cases. Vote yes.

What it does

Key elements of Prop. 34:

-- Repeals death penalty and establishes life without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment for convicted murderers.

-- Applies retroactively to the more than 700 inmates on death row.

-- Directs $100 million from the savings to law enforcement agencies to help solve homicide and rape cases.

Source: Editorial, San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 19, 2012

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