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April 14, 2010 > Discussion for an end to death sentences in Alameda County

Discussion for an end to death sentences in Alameda County

By Shavon Walker

Union City Council discussed a resolution for an end to the death penalty on economic grounds on March 9. District Attorney Nancy O'Malley spoke in support of retaining the death penalty. Natasha Minkser, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California and of the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, spoke on favor of abolition.

Natasha Minsker
"I speak on behalf of the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Our coalition includes a wide range of organizations in Alameda County - religious groups, the ACLU Northern California, the League of Women Voters (Alameda County), Democratic clubs... In total, we represent thousands of county residents, including thousands in Union City.

We united about two years ago to form the Alameda County coalition because we were concerned about the high rate of death sentences in the county. Historically, Alameda County has sent more people to death row than any other Bay Area county. Since 2000, there have been 16 death sentences, more than all other Bay area counties combined. Santa Clara County has had two death sentences in the same period; they were change-of-venue cases pursued by district attorneys from other counties and brought to Santa Clara County. Coalition members have a range of perspectives on this issue but we agree every death-penalty case is a waste of critical taxpayer dollars that would be better spent on other public safety needs.

Most people don't realize death-penalty trials cost the county significantly more than trials seeking permanent imprisonment. Death-penalty trials require extra attorneys, take more of the prosecution, police and court's time and need more jurors. They're incredibly resource intensive, most of those resources coming from our tax dollars. On average, a death-penalty trial costs $1M more than a non-death penalty trial.

What do we get for that money? California has more than 700 people on death row. It takes 25 years to complete mandatory appeals. Only one percent of those sentenced to death in California will actually be executed. The California system has become so dysfunctional and inoperative we must realize it provides none of the supposed benefits sought by the death penalty's supporters. The California system is completely broken. In reality, it's a very expensive form of permanent imprisonment. In the 1970s, California created the alternative of "life without the possibility of parole," which effectively means permanent imprisonment. Every person in California who receives the sentence will die in prison. The only people released after being sentenced to permanent imprisonment were actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

This is another problem with the death penalty. Some people say, 'It costs too much; it takes too long, we should speed up the process.' Quickening the process increases the risk of execution of an innocent person. In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice examined the problem of wrongful convictions in the state and concluded California remains at risk of executing an innocent person and that improvement of the death-penalty system requires increased expenditure.

As you're aware, we've no more money in this economy. So, we must make tough choices. We must decide where to make smart cuts. When you choose between reducing money wasted on the death penalty and reducing funding for prosecutors and police, education, healthy families and programs that provide insurance and services to poor children, the choice should be easy. In Alameda County we're moving in the right direction and it's critical we voice our support for alternatives and that you, as elected representatives, say 'The people of Union City support alternatives to the death penalty and a better use of our resources.'"

Nancy O'Malley:
"I respect the dialogue. I met with Ms. Minsker and discussed the economics of the death penalty. However, I come before you not to debate capital punishment because it's the law in California. I have taken an oath to uphold and enforce the laws. Rather, I would like to address the Council on the proposed resolution. I shan't dwell on the history the death penalty; suffice to say it was created through the initiative process before I was even out of high school. It's still the law. The only way to change it is either by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a public vote.

I want to address the issues raised in the proposed resolution because I don't believe they're fact-based and some of the assumptions made are inaccurate. Until there are changes to the death-penalty laws, I'm mandated, like all district attorneys in California, to enforce the laws. District Attorney Tamala Harris, a candidate for Attorney General, has indicated that if elected she will enforce all laws including the death penalty. They're not personal decisions; they're legal decisions.

Alameda County is the seventh largest County in California with a population of more than 1.5 million and one of the highest violent-crime rates in the state and in the country. Perhaps that's one reason the county has more trials. Since 2004, we've charged 474 defendants with murder. Of that group, 123 were reviewed by a committee formed in 1982 to responsibly and meticulously examine cases considered for capital punishment and in which special circumstances might exist. Capital punishment was recommended in only three cases, or less than one percent of the defendants who were charged with murder and only two percent of the defendants who were eligible for capital punishment.

Two of the three cases have been adjudicated. The first was the execution-style murder of San Leandro Police Officer Dan Niemi who responded to a call of loud noise. On being asked for identification, the defendant shot Niemi twice in the face. As he lay dying on the ground, the defendant stood over him and fired three more shots into his body. The culprit was sentenced to death. The second case, resolved since 2004, was the brutal murder, rape, strangulation and asphyxiation of Suzanne McKenna, a waitress at Carrow's. The defendant, a twice-convicted rapist from Los Angeles, followed her home, broke into her house, bound, gagged, raped, sodomized and killed her. The death penalty was handed down. I provide this information not to talk about the heinousness with which crimes are committed but to assure you and the public that the Alameda County District Attorney's office and I, personally, as a district attorney, accept the responsibility of the decisions that have to be made. We don't take that decision lightly nor does any prosecutor in my office. It's key that we build safeguards into our process so if the death sentence is handed down, there is absolutely no opportunity or chance that the defendant is anything other than guilty of all the crimes.

The costs which Ms. Minsker has cited are not borne out by the evidence. It costs no more to prosecute a capital case and we've made that decision only three times since 2004. The cost of incarceration for these types of crimes is the same for life-without-parole and death row. California taxpayers bear those operational costs.

Of the state's 701 death-row defendants, 42 were sent by Alameda County. That's only six percent of the death-row population. So, the statistics presented to you earlier about the number, or percentage, of death-penalty cases prosecuted in this county is untrue. Two other similar-sized counties, Riverside and San Bernardino, account for 10 percent and five percent, respectively, and Los Angeles represents 32 percent of death-row inmates. I'd urge you, since this is the law in California and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office is extremely responsible, to continue the dialogue about such serious issues rather than go to the extreme position of adopting a resolution to end death sentences."

The resolution died in the absence of a seconder.

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