Opinion: The chief justice, the death penalty and the ‘worst possible option’


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Keeping California’s dysfunctional status quo on the death penalty is the ‘worst possible option,’ California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told The Times’ editorial board last Friday. ‘And for the most part in terms of structural change, that is what we’ve done.’

The chief justice was summing up a 2008 report on capital punishment in California, and expanding on remarks she made in a Dec. 24 story by Times staff writer Maura Dolan. Cantil-Sakauye noted the cost and the fact that only 13 people have been executed in the state since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978, yet there remain some 700 condemned prisoners on death row.


Opinion L.A. will this week roll out audio clips and partial transcripts of Cantil-Sakauye’s discussion on the death penalty; tension between the Judicial Council, which she leads, and its antagonists in trial courts and the Legislature; and the budget crisis facing the state’s judicial branch. Listen and read below. See link regarding the death penalty in California and the chief justice’s references to reports at the bottom of this post, and returnTuesday for more from our visit.

Listen: The chief justice discusses the death penalty

The ability to improve the process, if that is the will of the people and continues to be the will of the people, really requires a debate about the costs, effectiveness, the timeliness; the investment of not only cost but human resources in the process. And we should have a debate about that -- whether it’s effective and this is what the voters truly want California to proceed to do, given our limited resources. And if that’s the case we, need to sort of put our money where our will is. In 2008 when …former Atty. Gen. [John] Van de Kamp and professor [Gerald] Uelman came up with a report that was contributed to by many learned people and experienced people in the penalty process, in the habeas corpus process, they came up with a number of suggestions, some of which have been implemented. But they basically also said that if we do nothing, it is the worst possible option. And for the most part in terms of structural change, that is what we’ve done. I understand it’s an emotional issue. And I don’t take that away. But I do think that we … having experience since 1978 ought to be able to try to have, among those of us who are involved, a merit-based discussion about cost-effective structure and change.

Cantil-Sakauye referred to a 2008 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. The section on the death penalty begins on Page 111.

For administration of the death penalty to become effective, the 2008 report said, funding is needed so that California can provide condemned prisoners with constitutionally required attorneys and investigators. The three alternatives:

1. Make a new investment of $95 million a year, added to the current $137 million spent annually on administering the death penalty, that would come to $232.7 million.

2. Narrow the list of special circumstances that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty; that would reduce the annual cost to $130 million.

3. Eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole; that would reduce the annual cost of trying and punishing such defendants to $11.5 million.

Cantil-Sakauye stressed costs, budget cuts and backlogs rather than philosophical concerns about capital punishment. Look for audio clips and partial transcripts on Opinion L.A. on Tuesday.

--Robert Greene


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