I'm not sure. It's [most prevalent] when you go west. The West has always been kind of a cowboy part of the country, where they hang 'em high after they've committed a crime. I grew up in New York. There was no public stampede for executions. On the West Coast, it's been entirely different.
We've had 12 executions under [my] initiative; the approximate average cost for each execution was $330 million. That cause[s] heads to turn. And right now, we see the cutbacks in education and public safety; police departments throughout the state [have] cut patrols, cut officers. One of the main purposes of government is public safety, and so in the pursuit of retribution and vengeance, we are pouring dollar after dollar into capital punishment with costs that I never could have envisioned in 1977.
When people start thinking, "I'm voting on this but maybe [the cost] is going to deprive my children or my grandchildren of an education," people will [also] start thinking about consequences instead of just "an eye for an eye." It's not going to change overnight.
Life without parole serves the public-safety interests. It's a lot cheaper, and you could even have special prisons for life-without-parole [prisoners]. You can serve the interests of the public and save a huge amount of money.
Politics has also kept capital punishment front and center.
It's true. It's like apple pie and motherhood. Law and order has been a constant refrain since Richard Nixon ran for president.
Nixon's a good example. It would take Republicans like you to turn public attitudes. Are there Republican politicians who share your thinking?
I think in their heart of hearts, if you speak to them off the record, they would vote that way, but the liberal wing of the Republican Party has essentially been trounced by the right wing, even though it doesn't reflect the majority of the people of the United States. Now we've reached the chaos of government, where it's pretty much dysfunctional. Even Jerry Brown, who we've seen resurrected in a much more conservative way -- and a very bright man -- can't reel in his own party, and Republicans are just refusing to work with him for the common good. At some point, he may do what Gov. [George] Ryan did in Illinois two days before he left office: commute [to life in prison] every sentence on death row.
I expect back in 1977 you wouldn't have foreseen yourself working with the ACLU?
Nope. But I've always had a high regard for [its] lawyers. Even though I disagreed with them, I've always admired people who guided themselves out of principle, trying to uphold the Constitution. There's a lot of conservative people I respect: Justice Scalia, I have a high regard for.
What about the argument that the death penalty lowers crime rates?
Statistically, in a number of states where there is no death penalty, state crime has dropped. I have found from my years as a lawyer in the criminal process that it doesn't deter anyone. When someone kills, they're thinking of satisfying whatever [made them] decide to kill. They never think about the ultimate punishment.
You sound as if you have real regrets about the Briggs initiative.
I've had a lot of great professional accomplishments. I've had a case where I was the functional equivalent of Atticus Finch and my client wasn't hanged; it was the greatest victory of my entire career. But the thing I regret most that I cannot change -- except by what I do now -- was drafting the death penalty initiative.
An attorney I debated on capital punishment [in 1978] said, "Don, you're a fine lawyer. At some point in your life you're going to regret this because you're too decent a person not to realize what you did." That stayed with me, and at some point, I realized he was right.
Is your wife nicer to you now that you agree with her on capital punishment?
[He laughs.] How do you define "nice"? We still have debates about a number of things; our views are not always coalesced, but it keeps our life interesting!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.