What can be more momentous than the decision by a democratic society to give the state the power to take a human life?
This weekend I got to vote against the death penalty. Prop 34 was one of the big reasons I drove an hour to Norwalk to exercise a civic duty early, since California’s choice for president is not going to be swayed by me.
But on the death penalty, every vote can make a difference.
The proposal itself, offering to replace capital punishment with life without parole, is a moment to celebrate. It is a chance to consider what to do about a 35-year-old penalty that is both brutal and wasteful, senseless and, far too often, error-ridden. Oddly, I haven’t heard anyone talking about it.
Have we lost interest in this issue as a society? For decades we have debated the moral dilemma posed by the death penalty in newspapers, on talk shows, on television cop dramas and movies from “Dead Man Walking” to "Conviction" to “The Green Mile.”
After all, what can be more momentous than the decision by a democratic society to give the state the power to take a human life?
A watershed moment arrived with the rise of DNA evidence, offering definitive proof over unreliable eyewitnesses, overambitious prosecutors or racist juries. But it has taken many years for us to accept what the science renders inevitable. We can no longer ignore the stark reality of our judicial system, laid bare. Mistakes are made. Innocent people are sent to the death chamber. That blood is on our hands as a nation.
That may not be the case in liberal California, where, because of the agonizingly slow appeals system, only 13 people have been put to death since 1977. Up to now, even Democratic governors like Gray Davis have been reluctant to use their pardon privilege.
Meanwhile the state has spent $4 billion to prosecute and incarcerate condemned inmates since capital punishment was instituted. The cost of life without parole, by comparison, is far less. (Death Row inmates have special housing, and their cases demand decades of legal work on appeal.) There are more than 700 inmates on California's Death Row. No executions have happened since 2006 because of pending lawsuits.
Still, the proposition is unlikely to pass. A Field Poll released on Friday showed that only 45 percent of likely voters will vote in favor of Prop 34. That number is on the rise, up four points in the past few weeks, up a total of 12 points from a year ago. And 20 percent of voters remain undecided on the matter. (Should we send them all DVDs of “Paradise Lost” about the West Memphis non-killers?)
Public opinion is inexorably changing. In 1989, only one-third of those asked thought that innocent people might be executed by the state. In the Field Poll, nearly half of those asked thought so.
For myself, I confess that it was a movie that swayed my view on the death penalty. I saw Errol Morris’ “Thin Blue Line” in the late 1980s, while I was covering a bloody conflict in the Middle East and witnessing violence up close, every day.
The movie changed me. The documentary chillingly proved that Randall Adams, a Texas man who had been arrested for the murder of a police officer, convicted and on Death Row, was innocent. The movie helped secure his release.
It proved to me that no matter how many checks and balances are built into the process, innocent people may still be put to death.
We have the chance in California to set a new path — one that is more sane, and more in line with our values. Get thee to the voting booth.