This fall, Californians will be voting on the death penalty: to abolish — to keep. This is an argument that has existed as long as I have been alive (a significant number of years). I remember so clearly when it was Gov. Pat Brown’s turn at bat to either commute or let go forward the execution of Caryl Chessman in early 1960. It was a horrific execution with the governor’s phone call to commute the execution for a second time coming in just as the gas was expelled into the gas chamber. It was too late to stop it. I know that many people, like myself, sat and listened to the radio waiting to know if Chessman would live or die. Chessman died. Chessman never murdered anyone. California murdered Chessman.
Chessman was no angel by any means. He was a robber, a rapist, a kidnapper (which earned him the death penalty), but he was not a murderer.
I remember how sick I felt, as if I had released the gas, killed another human being, as if I had personally been involved. To some extent, I was. I was a citizen of this country and a resident of the State of California, where executions were legal and carried out.
Then there is the hideously tragic case of Carlos DeLuna, a Texas man who was executed not too long ago for a murder it was found he did not commit. Evidence was hidden; the judge and jury lied to, his attorney deceived. But DeLuna died and the man who was guilty went free, committed more violent acts, and lived until arrested for another similar crime and died in prison. But not executed as DeLuna was, just died of natural causes. DeLuna did not murder anyone. Texas murdered DeLuna.
OK, magnify this by … what number? Who knows? How many times are we going to read that someone was unjustifiably executed because new evidence had been found or the ‘real’ criminal identified after the execution?
Believe me, I am not a real bleeding heart on this issue. If someone were to kill a loved one of mine, I would want to be the first one on the firing line — if I knew for certain he or she had done the deed. My heart would not be full of forgiveness and charity. It would be full of pain and anguish and torment — and hate. I am the first to admit it. Do not hurt my loved ones. I will not forgive you, no matter what my religion demands of me. I will want to see you dead.
I remember too well the horrifying nights of the reign of terror heaped on us in Southern California as the Manson clan killed and killed again. We all wanted Manson and his group to be executed. They continue to live out their lives in prison. My (then) husband and I knew Jay Sebring, and this fact brought the terror horribly close to home. We did not have the death penalty in California then, or they would all be gone by now. And maybe we would be well rid of them. But at what cost to others, who might not be guilty?
So … I am also filled with pain, anguish and torment — and guilt, each time an innocent man is executed. I don’t know who is innocent and who is guilty. Most times, there is some doubt, some question, but if the death penalty is legal and if the defendant is sentenced, the question of guilt becomes moot. It then becomes fact. And the process of execution begins. With a long wait. That wait supposedly gives us time to review the condemned’s innocence or guilt.
There is something incredibly horrifying about the idea of an innocent man or woman sitting and waiting for, and then being led to, his/her execution. I am one of those people who cannot let that concept go; it has kept me awake at night when I have read of another innocent person being murdered. No, I do not want some sort of special leniency given to killers, or criminals of any kind. Especially not to those who act criminally against children. (That rankles me in the most tormenting way.) But … we, you and I, do not KNOW for a fact that an individual is guilty or innocent, and we are taking a chance that we are doing the right thing when, in fact, we might be doing the most horribly wrong thing. A man who is wrongly incarcerated cannot be given back his lost years, but at least he can be released and live out his remaining years freely. A man who is wrongly executed is … dead. There is no reprieve.
There are many arguments for and against the death penalty, some (lots) having to do with the expense of maintaining a prisoner. I don’t believe that is the primary issue; the issue is and must continue to be, that we do not kill innocent people in our state. If that means that a guilty, murderer, stays alive, then so be it. More horrible is the death of an innocent person. I do not want to be responsible for another murder in our state. I cannot condone the death penalty. I hope and pray we will vote to abolish the death penalty in our wonderful state of California.