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On May 6th in Georgia, William Earl Lynd, 53, became the first death-row inmate executed in the U.S. in seven months.  Executions have been on hold all these months while the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether or not lethal injection protocols are constitutional.  In an overwhelming vote of 7-2, the Court decided they were constitutional and execution chambers in the 36 states that allow the death penalty are preparing to return to duty.  


 The Court’s decision, and Lynd’s execution, have provided another national platform for passionate voices to be raised over the use of death penalty.  What’s interesting is how loud and zealous the voices on both sides are when we consider that the death penalty itself affects a relatively small number of people.  There are 3,263 people on death row, 669 of them in California (which has by far the largest death-row population in the country).  Yet, the death penalty is constantly on the front page of newspapers, the lead story on TV news, and a litmus test for many voters on which candidate they will vote for.  Why is this one issue so foremost in our heads and hearts?  Because when people pass laws about who should live and who should die, they are defining themselves as community.  They are proclaiming their values, not through bland patriotic rhetoric, but through their deliberate actions.  We know that when the government kills in war, we all have our hands on that trigger—and when they execute in peace, we all have our hands on that syringe.


So what does the death penalty say about us?
The primary purpose of the death penalty, like all laws, is to protect the innocent.  Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat.  But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice.  While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a price tag.  What Californians have to decide is whether or not we’re paying too much for what we’re getting.

How Much Money Does the Death Penalty Cost?
Every society is on a limited budget.  Therefore, priorities have to be made and every society must face some difficult choices about how to get the most protection out of each dollar.  California’s current $16 billion deficit threatens to handicap or destroy many institutions designed to protect society—and to save lives.  Already a $2-billion cut in school programs and health care for the poor has been approved by the Legislature.
Our hospital situation was already bad, now it can only get worse.  Los Angeles County alone lost 27 acute-care hospitals between 1994 and 2004; 7 other hospitals reduced services or cancelled their mental health units.  Trauma centers, which save hundreds of lives by providing immediate, specially trained medical care for life-threatening injuries, have closed throughout the state.  Of L.A. County’s 23 trauma centers, 13 closed or were downgraded into emergency rooms.  The Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946 compelled hospitals to achieve 4.5 beds per 1,000 people.  In 2003, California’s ratio had dropped to 1.9 beds per 1,000.


Public schools, which protect our future by providing citizens who are competitive in the economic marketplace and educated in the needs of democracy, have also fumbled the ball.  Some inner-city students go through classes without textbooks.  Perhaps the greatest threat to California’s future is the fact that our students rank next to last in academic achievement in the United States.  We rank 50th in the nation (including District of Columbia) in school staff to student ratio, 51st in librarians ratio; 51st in guidance counselor ratio, and 49th in teacher ratio.  A 2007 study ranked California 34th in its students’ potential for success.  That’s not surprising when our students test below the national average in math, science, reading, and writing.  And current budget woes have caused the state to cut $4.8 billion from education and to issue pink slips to 24,000 teachers, librarians and nurses in our public schools.


While money is lacking in those areas, California has not hesitated in spending $114 million a year of taxpayers’ money on the death penalty (beyond the cost of lifetime imprisonment, and not including post-conviction hearings that cost millions more).  According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times study, we pay $90,000 more a year per inmate to keep them on death row rather than in the general prison population, which adds up to $57.5 million annually.  California’s Attorney General spends 15% of his annual budget ($11 million) on death penalty cases; our state Supreme Court spends $11.8 million appointing lawyers in death penalty cases; the Office of the State Public Defender and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center spend $22.3 million defending indigents in death penalty cases.  A 2008 study by the ACLU of Northern California concluded that to execute all the people currently on death row will cost $4 billion more than if they had been sentenced to life imprisonment to die of disease, injury, old age.  State after state has conducted cost-efficiency studies of the death penalty—most recently New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, and Texas—and all have concluded that the death penalty costs significantly more than sentencing someone to Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOPP).


Because counties that seek the death penalty must pay for the costs, many smaller counties have faced bankruptcy, reduction of social services, and/or increased taxes in order to pay for a death penalty trial.  Studies indicate that putting more police officers on the streets would reduce crime and make us safer; yet, budget cuts have forced the early release of thousands of prisoners while at the same time forcing some smaller counties to reduce the number of police officers and firefighters.  In 1988, Sierra County, California cut their police force in order to pay for their death penalty trials.  District Attorney James Reichele explained, “If we didn't have to pay $500,000 a pop for Sacramento's murders, I'd have an investigator and the sheriff would have a couple of extra deputies and we could do some lasting good for Sierra County law enforcement. The sewage system at the courthouse is failing, a bridge collapsed, there's no county library, no county park, and we have volunteer fire and volunteer search and rescue.”


I know some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?”  Fair enough.  But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, thousands of inmates released into our communities, and from a critical lack of hospital staff.  There are 7,000 deaths annually in hospitals from errors in medication, partially due to understaffing.  That’s 7,000 every year versus the possibility that an inmate sentenced to LWOPP might possibly escape and kill again.


Is the Death Penalty Color Blind?
A lot has been made of the ratio of whites to blacks on death row.  I don’t think that statistic in itself proves racism.  It’s possible that people who have been systematically discriminated against for centuries have less economic opportunities than others and therefore may resort to crime and violence to a greater extent than those with the opportunity to resort to college and business school.  In other words, the poor may more often act out of desperation and ignorance more than those who are financially secure.  They may have less respect for the rules of a society they see as not giving them a fair break.  That could explain why 42% of men on death row are black, though they comprise only 6% of the total U.S. population.


Or it could be that people of color are more likely to be singled out to receive the death penalty.  The study by David Baldus and George Woodwort in the 1980s exposed a nationwide practice in which the district attorneys (98% of which are white, 1% are African-American) were much more likely to go after black defendants for killing a white victim, than for killing a black victim, or than go after white defendant for killing a white or black victim.  More than twenty years later nothing has changed.  A recent Santa Clara Law Review study found that the victim’s race significantly influenced whether or not the death penalty would be sought.  Studies in Ohio, Illinois, and New Jersey reached similar conclusions.  Since then, discrimination continues in various forms, the most common is the attempt by district attorneys to exclude jurors of color, which is unconstitutional.  


The studies are condemning enough, but add to that the voices of the experts, and it’s pretty convincing that racial bias permeates the death penalty process.  Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who had started as a death penalty supporter, became an ardent abolitionist.  He stated, “Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die….I cannot see any of these death penalty cases where there hasn't been a violation on the ground of either poverty or race. If we can ever get that straightened out, it will help. But, of course, the real answer to it is to do away with the death penalty.”  Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was equally appalled at the injustice of the death penalty: “When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice. Instead, the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a pall of shame over our society for years to come. We cannot let it continue.”  Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan reached the same conclusion: “Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent.”


Yes, some people sentenced to die have been proven to be innocent.  In the last 25 years, 129 people in 26 states have been released from death row because of new evidence proving their innocence.  Some may think that proves the system is working; innocent people are being found out and released.  The problem with that logic is that while these people are still alive long enough for us to discover their innocence, what about those who are executed before their innocence is discovered?  Few people will keep trying to prove convicts’ innocence after they’re dead.  Many of the people released have been on death row for decades.  A couple weeks ago in California, Adam Miranda, who had been on death row for 26 years, had his death sentence voided by the state Supreme Court after it was discovered that the main witness against him had signed a confession to the murder.  The letter was placed in Miranda’s file by then-deputy district attorney Lance Ito (who later was the judge in the O.J. Simpson case) without sharing it with Miranda’s attorneys.  After 26 years on death row, the truth is finally out there.


Various studies have been conducted that conclude innocent people have been executed.  That’s mathematically inevitable.  So, the questions comes down to this analogy: You have ten people condemned to be executed and you know one is innocent, but you don’t know which one.  Do you execute all of them anyway, chalking up the innocent victim as collateral damage, or do you put them all in prison for life without possibility of parole hoping that one innocent person will be discovered?  If this choice defines my community’s morality, I would hope we’d choose to protect that innocent person.  After all, isn’t that what this is all about in the first place?

Final Word: The Body of Evidence
Are there people who commit crimes so heinous and barbaric and unconscionable that they deserve to die?  Damn right.  But the death penalty, as we now have it, isn’t the instrument of justice to achieve that goal.  It’s like going hunting with a broken gun that blows up in our faces every once in a while, though we never know when.  Until that gun is fixed, it’s better to use a different weapon.


Yes, we should have enormous outrage over the victims and on behalf of the victims’ families who must endure a lifetime of pain.  But we can’t express that outrage by deliberately risking the lives and welfare of everyone else in society.  Instead, we should lock the criminals away for life and get on with the business of serving our community—including the families of the victims—by protecting them with more police, firefighters, hospitals, and teachers.  We honor the memories of the slain by redoubling our efforts to protect all the innocent members of our community.

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Comments

Kareem,
Once again the information you have provided the public is at the forefront. Other issues warrant consideration of the death penalty as it is charged throughout the United States. The death penalty is not equally applied and there is considerable discretion in the prosecutorial decision to seek the death penalty in every case.
I believe more persons of color are on death row as a result. The composition of the jury is another factor, the wealth or lack thereof of the accused contributes to the problem as well as the attorney(s) of record who defend. The court also has considerable discretion in reviewing constitutional issues addressing all of the above, not to mention the admissability of evidence against the accused. A current Supreme Court Justice once wrote in a court opinion "the constitution does not prevent the execution of an innocent man if he had a fair trial". There will always be innocent persons on death row. It is why the Governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in that state a couple of years ago. Executions are inhumane and as you stated, serve no purpose. Personally, reading about them make me physically ill.

Kareem,
Your effort to document the funding required in order to execute death row inmates and how these funds numbering billions of dollars could better serve the needs of local and state communities is commendable. I recall reading an article in the LA Times about an entire elementary school full of kids that were given backpacks full of food on the weekend to take home so that they would not return to school hungry on Monday. Their scores improved significantly.

It's no wonder that so many students feel pushed out of the school system so full of inadequate monies supporting their future. Our schools and health care institutions should be a funding priority and your analysis of the criminal justice system that continues to promulgate prisoners rather than college students cannot continue to be disregarded by our elected state and national representatives.

Twenty years ago I was invited to tour a state prison facility that included the death row unit and it's gas chamber. I politely declined an invitation to sit inside the gas chamber. More recently I lived one mile as the crow flies from a state prison facility that planned and carried out an execution. The giddy reporting by the local television station still baffles me. The whole event made me physically ill and literally sent me packing. My preference would have been to join the candlelight vigil of a dozen people across the street from the prison's entrance but was afraid of all the law enforcement vehicles hiding in the bushes attending to security.

For all of the reasons you have stated, the Governor of Illinois commuted all death penalty sentences in that state to life in prisonment.

In contrast to the writings of earlier Supreme Court Justices, Justice Clarence Thomas of the present court had a notion to include in his opinion about the death penalty, "the constitution does not forbid the execution of an innocent man, if he had a fair trial".

Justice Marshall turns in his grave to allow a sitting judge keep his position following the blatant prosecutorial misconduct of deputy prosecutor Ito that put Mr. Miranda on death row for decades. To hold the exulpatory evidence in secret from his defense attorneys is grounds for disbarrment. The evidence should have been disclosed to the grand jury that indicted him, preventing his further detention and need for a trial decades ago. The grand jury is selected by prosecutors. Our courts still sanction not only the exclusion of exculpatroy evidence from presentation to the grand jury by state and federal prosecutors, but the process of selecting the grand jury that often focuses on eliminating any sypatheic views from its composition.

All very good points re: death penalty. My litmus test for evaluating the morality of the death penalty has always been: If one person was holding a gun to your head after killing several others in plain site, one would be justified in taking his life to save yours and others. Most would feel it would be justified. However, once he/she were captured and tried under due process -- then it is not? Kareem seems to agree to that in theory, if one could eliminate innocent people being falsely executed. As the oracle in the Matrix might say, "That is a pickle." Personally, I feel people would suffer punitively more by living in prison for the rest of their lives, which would seem way more costly. Perhaps the definitions could be more refined, as a stepping stone, for cases that would eliminate reasonable doubt to no doubt at all. For example, cases of mass murder as in Virginia Tech where you have dozens of witnesses and cameras.

Hello Kareem;

I have read a lot of this website, and I agree with a lot of whats been said here by you.

I am a Celtics fan, and I have seen a lot of you lately. in the 80's, and we couldnt stand him. Now, its seems we all feel different, almost like "hey Kareem is a really smart guy, and by the way, was he not a worthy opponent?"

Its like even though Kareem bounced us out of 2 championships, we all kind of like him now.

So whats that got to do with California tax money and the death penalty ? Nothing, but maybe we should all take time out and consider what this great man has to say.

Eveyone is so polarized and crazy these days. If you told me things would be worse 20 years from now, back in the 80's - I would have said "your crazy" but they are.

So maybe we all should take time to hear what the other guy has to say, and maybe we should all soften our stances on things, and maybe we should get rid of the death penalty, and spend that money on helping people out, who just simply need some help.

The money wasted in this country is a crime in itself. I would truly like to see it spent on or in places where it is needed, the inner city ?

I dont know, I just hope things get better & not worse. Maybe we should listen more to people like Kareem, just once in a while...

Rachel Lyon (an acquaintance of mine) has directed an exellent film on the death penalty, Race to Execution (http://www.racetoexecution.com/). Among other things, it highlights the different application of the penalty based on the race of the suspect and the victim.

Thank you,

Neil

When I was researching the US penal system vs keeping someone out of jail i.e with a transmitter in their home, the COST at that time was $110,000 per year with crowding rampant, Hence, an serious crime with 20 yr incarceration wouldbe $2.2 million, a staggering amount. ABSOLUTELY no doubt that most are reapeat offenders, the term REHABILITATION does not exist in a government operated system, and the $500,000 a pop/murder is due to the UNCOMPETITIVE cost structure of non-bidding, non competitive, highly corrupt governmental system. No way on the economics!

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of www.iconomy.com unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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