Former Attorney General John Van de Kamp Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward Former Attorney General John Van de Kamp

Common-sense justice

Former Attorney General John Van de Kamp calls for an end to capital punishment

By Joe Piasecki 07/09/2009

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Unlike most of capital punishment’s ardent opponents, former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp has actually sent men to Death Row.

As Los Angeles County District Attorney from 1976 to 1982, Van de Kamp’s office successfully argued for several death sentences, including one against “Freeway Killer” William George Bonin for the rape, torture and murder of more than a dozen boys, some as young as 12. But Bonin’s execution in 1996 was one of only 13 in California since the late 1970s. The condemned are more likely to die in their cells, as 61 have in the past 30 years.

Today, with more than 700 Death Row prisoners awaiting execution for decades and no money in sight for improving the integrity and efficiency of the failing capital punishment system, Van de Kamp is publicly calling for an end to the death penalty.

In an article last month for the Los Angeles Times, Van de Kamp called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to end capital punishment, arguing that doing so would help alleviate the state’s financial crisis by saving $1 billion over the next five years.

“Even supporters realize it’s not working, and no one’s going to come up to make it work. So let’s get rid of it,” said Van de Kamp.

‘A very imperfect tool’
If Schwarzenegger followed Van de Kamp’s advice, he would not be the first American Republican governor to formally rebuke capital punishment.

After losing a bid for a third two-year term in 1970, former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a member of the famous Rockefeller family and brother of former Republican New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, commuted the sentences of every person on Death Row before leaving office.

Thirty years later, Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan — before political corruption convictions sent him to federal prison, where he continues to serve a six-year sentence — placed a moratorium on capital punishment and, days before leaving office in 2003, commuted the sentences of 167 Death Row inmates to life in prison. Ryan, who had supported capital punishment, said the release of numerous wrongfully convicted Death Row prisoners — one man who sat on Death Row for 15 years was freed after his case was examined by a group of Northwestern University journalism students — convinced him it could not be administered fairly. 

In California, the excessive delay in implementing death sentences is but one of several flaws in the capital punishment system that were indentified last year by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, an expert advisory body created by the state Legislature and led by Van de Kamp, a onetime Democratic gubernatorial candidate and a lifelong Pasadena resident.

The commission, which also issued recommendations for better handling of evidence in all criminal cases, found that California’s handling of the death penalty poses risks for wrongful convictions, too often permits inadequate legal representation for defendants and is plagued by procedural backlogs due to funding shortages for prosecutors and public defenders.

The 23-member group also found that the state spends $125 million more per year to prosecute death penalty cases than if life sentences were sought and is expected to invest $400 million in construction of an expanded Death Row, the one in San Quentin already housing more condemned inmates than any other in the country.

To bring the state’s capital punishment process in line with national averages — a little more than 12 years between conviction and execution — staffing increases alone would require the state to spend an additional $95 million each year. In the midst of a financial crisis threatening the state’s very ability to operate, not one lawmaker has stepped forward to call for such costly reforms.

And such changes would only work if the state is successful in spending even more time and money to revise its lethal injection procedures, which a federal judge suspended more than three years ago after finding the process violated constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

“I personally have moral issues with the death penalty and believe it is a very imperfect tool that can lead to terrible consequences once in a while. As a person who had to take the oath when I took public office, I made it my rule that I was going to carry out the law as fairly as possible,” said Van de Kamp, who was born in Pasadena in 1936, attended John Muir High School and continues in private practice.

Van de Kamp’s personal opposition to the death penalty came into play during his 1990 bid for governor, in which he lost the Democratic primary to now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco. “Feinstein ran against me indicating that she was the only [Democratic candidate] in favor of the death penalty,” he said. “She used it against me.”

Van de Kamp kept his opinions to himself while chairing the commission, but spoke out earlier this year while receiving both a lifetime achievement award from the LA County Bar Association and the Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award from the activist group Death Penalty Focus. At the Death Penalty Focus event, Van de Kamp was joined by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who earlier this year signed legislation repealing capital punishment in that state.

“I wanted to give the commission’s recommendations some time to see whether the [reform] process that we unanimously supported would be supported in the Legislature,” he said. “There’s been absolutely no interest whatsoever.”

Nothing fair about it

The dysfunctional nature of capital punishment in California and legislators’ reluctance to implement reform has, in fact, affected the thinking of many supporters of the death penalty — including that of Pasadena police Chief Bernard Melekian, president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

“The death penalty is one of those emotional issues that people feel very, very strongly about. Trying to separate fact from emotion is difficult. I personally believe that the state has a right under certain circumstances to take a person’s life,” said Melekian. “But the way we implement the death penalty in this country is grossly unfair and it ought not be utilized until we come up with a process that makes it far less of a dice roll than it currently is.”

In addition to the possibility of wrongful convictions, Melekian is also disturbed by the drawn-out nature of the process. “There’s nothing fair about that — it’s not fair to the victims, it’s not fair to the families and it does not serve justice,” he said. 

Though the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice’s final report announced “full agreement” with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George’s assertion that “California’s death penalty system is dysfunctional,” its members were not immune to the polarizing nature of capital punishment.

Several published personal addenda to the death penalty reform recommendations, which, beyond its lengthy list of needed improvements, examined alternatives of limiting or eliminating its use.

Although LAPD Chief William Bratton wrote that “I support the position that California has a dysfunctional system,” he also wrote that he would not support any effort to eliminate the death penalty or limit its use.

Others, including a representative of the California Police Chiefs Association, penned a lengthy response asserting that Van de Kamp’s commission focused too much on the system’s flaws, creating an “obvious bias against capital punishment.”

LA County Public Defender Michael Judge and seven others wrote that the commission’s findings led them to believe that capital punishment should end.

Attorney General and former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who also sat on the commission and is again running for governor, wrote separately that we would welcome its suggested reforms. A former seminary student who had intended to become a Jesuit priest, then-Gov. Brown vetoed a bill to restore the death penalty but was overridden by the Legislature. As attorney general, he has sworn to uphold capital cases.

As chair, Van de Kamp ran proceedings but did not vote on findings or write a separate opinion.

In his article for the Times, published nearly one year after the commission’s work ended, Van de Kamp urged Schwarzenegger to convert the sentences of Death Row inmates to life without parole — effectively ending the death penalty in California, potentially saving the life of anyone wrongfully convicted and saving much-needed funds for state operations, he argued.

“The system simply isn’t working,” Van de Kamp wrote. “A courageous governor facing an unprecedented budget crisis would take this step and use the taxpayer money saved to preserve some of the vital services now on the chopping block.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger has moved to restore the state’s ability to carry out executions, ordering state officials to retool the lethal injection method that US District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel suspended in 2006 due to evidence that the use of paralytic drugs had masked extreme physical pain caused by lethal doses of potassium chloride.

New life

A hearing last week in Sacramento about lethal injection protocol revisions — which, according to ACLU of Northern California Death Penalty Policy Director Natasha Minsker, appear to do little more than reduce the dosage of paralytic drugs and are subject to as much as a year of further review before heading back to federal court — morphed into a lengthy public denunciation of capital punishment as a whole. 

The federal government and 36 states, including California and New Mexico, have lethal injection as their primary method of execution, and nine — including Florida, Illinois and Arkansas — also give prisoners the option to die by electrocution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. California and four other states with lethal injection allow the condemned to choose the gas chamber, and a few others offer hangings or a firing squad as alternatives.

Van de Kamp’s work appears to have breathed new life into the movement to abolish capital punishment in California. Many of the more than 100 people who spoke at the hearing either cited findings of the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice or echoed his financial arguments. 

“When my brother, Bob, was killed in 2003 I had a lot of faith that there would be swift justice, but six years later still no one has been identified in his murder. I’ve looked at a lot of different things we don’t do for victims in California, and one of them is solving unsolved cases,” said Judy Kerr, victim outreach liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who argued for reinvesting death penalty spending into solving crimes. “We’re laying off police officers, closing cold case units, laying off DNA technicians — and murderers are still on the streets.”

Actor and activist Mike Farrell, who lives in Los Angeles and serves as president of Death Penalty Focus, also spoke at the Sacramento hearing.

“One area where logic can prevail is in the area of cost,” said Farrell, speaking not only of the state’s current $125 million annual death penalty burden, but also of the undisclosed costs of revising and possibly implementing new execution procedures.

“There are hidden costs attached to this — special training required for the killing team, access for the victims and the media. One thing I focused on was the psychological cost, not only to the condemned and the witnesses, but also to the people implementing this procedure,” said Farrell.

Kerr said the families of crime victims are also potentially traumatized by the lengthy execution process.

“From the victims’ perspective, the death penalty doesn’t work whether we support or oppose it,” she said. “As a registered nurse, I’ve never read a more horrible protocol: 40 pages on how to kill somebody. And that we do it at midnight with the curtain closed and not disclosing the members of the execution team all speaks to the fact that no one is really comfortable with this, like we need to hide the fact we’re doing it.”

Though doubtful that enough money could be raised to run a successful campaign, Farrell has also considered crafting a ballot measure that would allow voters to end the death penalty by reallocating capital punishment expenditures for other law enforcement goals, such as speeding up testing of DNA evidence.

The LA County Sherriff’s Department announced last month that it now lacks the resources to examine a DNA evidence backlog of thousands of rape and sexual assault cases. The department would need an additional $4.5 million — less than 4 percent of state spending on prosecuting death penalty cases — to do the job.

Instead of taking the issue to the ballot box, “Van de Kamp said the governor has the power … and he could save $1 billion over the next five years. That’s a billion dollars that could go to alleviate some of the cuts they’re talking about imposing,” said Farrell. “It’s just insane what they’re doing.”

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