The History of Capital Punishment in California

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California Capital Punishment

In my opinion, one of the aims of any judicial system is the insurance of the equitable administration of justice, so that society does not descend into anarchy. It also aims to through this means to dissuade other members of the society from embarking upon such a course of action. Thus, there has to be a balance between satisfying the needs for justice from the aggrieved party, and ensuring that the wrong party is properly punished in order to create a deterrent to the rest members of the society. One punishment type that arguably ticks all of the aforementioned is the death penalty since the aggrieved party cannot ask for more, the convicted party, especially in the cases of premeditated murder can be said to get what coming to them. Moreover, an issue that the punishment for a particular crime is death, would make other people reconsider committing the crime. At large, the society effectively removes such people from the circulation of its life; thus, the risk of a repeat offense as well as the threat to those people unfortunate to be in proximity to them is minimized.

Over the years, the question, of whether the death penalty is actually a proper measure, has come up again and again. However, there are some issues against it. First, is the question if it really placates or even pays back the aggrieved parties for the losses they have suffered. Moreover, recently given the advancements in technology and the overturned convictions that have ensued therefrom, there is the slightest chance that the criminal is actually the guilty party. If there is the slightest hesitation to answer affirmative to the aforesaid we find grounds to question the soundness of the death penalty as an effective punishment option given, the small matter of the rather permanent nature of it.

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In California, the criminal justice act of 1851 was made legal. Thus, the approval for capital punishment was made on the 14th of February 1872 (CDCR). It was amended to allow for the executions which were previously carried out by sheriffs to be performed inside of the premises of state prisons, and the method of execution at the time was hanging. At that time, most of the American laws had strong British influences, and this was one of them. Furthermore, most of the death penalty laws were up the individual states to decide upon their own applications of the law. On the 27 of August 1937 lethal gas replaced hanging as the method of execution. A 25 year period existed from 1967 when no execution was carried out in the state of California, this was a result of several state and federal court decisions. This challenged the constitutionality about the methods of executions at the time in fact, the California Supreme Court on 17th February 1972 stated “…abolished death penalty on the grounds that it is contrary to the state’s constitution and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment…” (Lipton). A few years later in 1978 the state reinstated the law after voters approved proposition 7 that made the death penalty part of the states penal code. On 1st January 1993, the method of execution was amended to give condemned felons the choice between lethal injection and lethal gas. Soon after the gas chambers were phased out when a “…U.S. district judge ruled that the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment, a ruling upheld by the U.S. ninth district court of appeal in February 1996…” (CDCR). Since 2006 no executions have been held in California since a federal court ruled that the current execution methods were also in violation of the cruel and unusual punishment ban by the U.S. constitution. In addition, they were citing the improper training and supervision of the execution members and lack of a guarantee that the inmates did not suffer pain. Consequently executions have been put on hold while the state fine tunes the flaws in the execution system (SHOUSE, 2012).

Even though murder/homicide of any kind is a capital offence, a conviction by a court does not always result in the death sentence because in California “…the law doesn’t make the death penalty mandatory for any crimes that are juries have the freedom to decide NOT to execute someone based on the particular circumstances of their background and crime…” (SHOUSE, 2012). Thus, a person is likely to be sentenced to death under the section 187 of the penal code in a special section known as the special circumstances murder. This is also known as a first degree murder an individual can fall into this category if he has had a prior murder conviction, kill a person by means of a bomb or poison, killed any of the following a law enforcement officer, a judge, fireman, jury member or prosecutor. In addition, a death penalty ruling can be passed down if a person is involved in a murder that includes torture, a connection with gangs or in addition, another serious felony (SHOUSE, 2012). It follows that special circumstances murder could be the most serious crime a person could be charged with in the state of California.

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Although the situation appears rather dreary, there are several mitigating circumstances that the jury takes into consideration before recommending the death penalty. First, if the defendant in a special murder case is young, say below 18 then one will avoid a death sentence. Furthermore, the mental status of the defendant is also taken into cognizance by the jury, this involves actual diagnosis of insanity or intense emotional upset at the time of the crime. Also, if the accused person can prove that at that time, they had justifiable reason to commit the said murder it can be considered as a mitigating circumstance. Other mitigating circumstances include blackmail and if the accused was only convicted of aiding and abetting the murder and not an active participant.

On the other hand, there are aggravating factors that can push the verdict by the jury towards the death sentence. They include the nature of the crime and the impact it had on the victim and their loved ones. Thus, this could particularly be in the case of the kidnap/murder of women and infants. The history of the accused could work against him/her for example if the defendant has a history of prior convictions. There is a chance for defendants to appeal such rulings.

On the 10th of July 2012, Californians voted for the prop of 34th amendment; if it passed would have repealed the death penalty from the state of California’s penal code and commuted it with life a life sentence without parole. However, fortunately or not depending on what side of the fence you’re on, it fell by 6 percentage points, thus the death row in the state of California which is the largest in the country, still retains its death row inmates. Oddly it was the first time in about 30 years that the people in California actually had a say in the death penalty stay or not stay debate. The proponents of the Prop 34 amendment have some of these as their reasons for supporting it.

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Most of the murders are not premeditated since their crimes are sometimes because of the passion that leaves no time for the person to calculate the outcome and possible consequences of their actions. This throws away the deterrent aspect of the death penalty. Furthermore, they argue that the permanent thought about loss of freedom should be deterrent enough for people considering premeditated murder. In fact, the certainty of death has been known to spur murderers to kill, for instance take the case of Daniel Colwell whose death wish prompted him to kill two people in cold blood in the knowledge that he would be killed by the state since he was afraid to kill himself (Walb, 2013). There has been evidence of racial bias in the death sentencing as was testified by a study of the Maryland governor (Pateroster).

The sheer irreversibility of the death sentence is finality in itself when carried out that there is no chance to apologize to the person for the miscarriage of justice, no forum to redress the harm done to him/her (Pilkington, 2012). There is also the emotional trauma experienced by those required by law to witness these executions. It has been reported in several cases that the families who have lost loved ones in violent crimes have themselves plead for clemency for these murderers. Some of them acknowledge that killing these felons in no way reverses the damage done to them, thus if the aim of the death penalty is to assuage their pain it actually nothing of the sort. In addition, the proponents of the Prop 34 amendment claim that it cost huge sums to put and keep people on death row. A study undertaken in North Carolina gives insight to the costs incurred in processing murder cases as well as the death row cases (Cook & Donna 1993). Moreover, they claim that the abolishment of the death penalty will save the state over 100 million dollars alone in costs. Finally, a look at the legal systems of the developed countries shows that the U.S. alone still practices what critics describe as a barbaric custom.

Those who oppose the Prop 34 movement on the other hand, see it as a first of many steps that will lead to rapists and murderers going Scott free or at best getting a slap on the wrist for their troubles; recently, the governor of California signed into law the CA SB 9 which makes it easier for felons convicted for murder to be eligible for parole after serving 25 if they were committed the murder when they were younger than 18 (Thompson, 2012). Is it their opinion, that the anti-death penalty proponents were using this as a first salvo, the reasoning being that if they thought death was cruel and unusual what stops them tomorrow from claiming that life without parole was not an infringement on the rights of the death row inmates? They could come up with the argument that the imprisonment posed undue psychological trauma to the criminals. Releasing these kinds of people has not really done much good take a case in point being Charles Manson.

They argue that abolishing the death penalty will save money have not been shown to be true as no clear document has been provided which shows how or where this money will be saved from. In the whole scheme, the only source of income would be the earnings of the inmates which would go to a fund meant for their victims, and bearing in mind the remorseless nature of these criminals one wonders where the incentive work would come from. The truth being that the cost of the trials and appeals will ensure that the convictions are the right ones and remove every doubt that the people being executed are in fact the guilty. Till date, the Prop 34 group is yet to provide a single case of an innocent death row inmate.

Furthermore, the very nature of these inmates brings into question how they will be managed when they are returned to the general population and brought into contact with people in prison for relatively speaking minor misdemeanors the sheer logistics that go into maintain them on death row would have to be scaled up significantly to manage some of these psychopaths. Ironically, there is no law that punishes them if they hurt or kill anyone in a while in jail.

At the moment, the Prop 34 amendment has failed but sooner or later, it will come up again. The margin of its failure is not such as to give either side a clear advantage, there are still a lot of undecided voters. As a result, much more education and enlightenment have to be done in order to swing the vote by the next time it come up for voting.

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