Challenging the death penalty in California

25th November 2013

News, Student news, Alumni news

Despite the best efforts of all those involved in California’s Prop 34 campaign to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, the vote suffered a narrow defeat. Why?

Money.

Play Challenging the death penalty in California

“We thought that the $7.5million dollars we had raised would be enough…but it takes a lot of money to communicate with all the voters,” Elizabeth Zitrin, Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told Wadham Human Rights Forum.

Elizabeth was speaking alongside Jeanne Woodford, former Warden of San Quentin State Prison, at the discussion entitled: Challenging the death penalty in California – overcoming emotion, myth and the usual suspects.

Elizabeth explained how a collaborative campaign of more than 7000 volunteers, involving groups like Amnesty International and the Roman Catholic Church, worked to demonstrate that the usual pro-death penalty arguments were flawed.

“The death penalty is an emotional thing. People see it as being tough on crime and what the offenders deserve,” she explained. However, Prop 34 campaigners were able to demonstrate:

•    There is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.
•    It’s counter intuitive that it costs more to execute people than to lock them up. It costs a great deal more to execute because of the mandatory appeals and trials processes involved.
•    Victims’ families do not get the ‘closure’ that is promised them when executions take place.
•    Many people killed on death row have been subsequently proven innocent.
 
Former Warden, Jeanne Woodford, highlighted the ‘inhumane’ effect of the death sentence not only on the family members of those being executed, but on the prison staff whose job it is to carry out the law. “I was always morally opposed to the death penalty”, she said, asking, “Would you want someone who wanted to kill to be Warden?” She described the difficult period of 30-60 days from the moment a warrant for execution is issued – time that the staff have to plan for the killing of a human being.

Jeanne also emphasised the fact that there are a large number of innocent people in prison in California, and meeting the exonerees has reinforced her desire to abolish the death penalty.

The Prop 34 campaign encouraged voters to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, encouraging those sentenced to work in order to pay restitution to victims’ families. Campaign research showed that this was the only acceptable alternative to the dealth penalty in California at this time. The vote was narrowly defeated, 52% against, 48% for. Elizabeth and Jeanne continue to campaign and are hopeful that they will be successful next time.

This event forms part of the Wadham Human Rights Forum, a continuing series of lectures, seminars and discussions hosted by the Wadham College Law Society and open to all.

  • Ken Macdonald QC introduces Elizabeth Zitrin (centre) and Jeanne Woodford

  • Elizabeth Zitrin, Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

    Elizabeth Zitrin, Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

  • Jeanne S. Woodford, former Warden of San Quentin State Prison

  • The audience gathers for the Wadham Human Rights Forum

Speaker biographies

Elizabeth Zitrin is Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. She has pioneered collaborations between the death penalty abolition movement in the US and the international abolition community. She organized and convened the World Coalition’s only General Assembly in the United States, as well as international forums on the death penalty, including panels of law enforcement professionals at the National Press Club and Golden Gate University Law School. Ms. Zitrin hosted the first US mission of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, during California’s historic SAFE California / YES on Proposition 34 Campaign to replace the death penalty, convening an international, bilingual Spanish/English forum on abolition at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Jeanne S. Woodford is the Former Warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she remained until called upon by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2004 to serve as the Director of the California Department of Corrections.  She became Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2005. An expert on prison management and administration, Ms. Woodford recently completed her work as the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, a US national organization committed to ending the death penalty. She was the proponent and primary spokesperson in support of the 2012 campaign to end the death penalty in California, Proposition 34.