The Death Penalty Is an Affirmation of the Sanctity of Life
“If we want to abolish the death penalty, let our friends the murderers take the first step.”
19th century French novelist
A 2 1/2-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped, sodomized, tortured and mutilated with vise grips over six hours. Then she was strangled to death. Her assailant, Theodore Frank, according to court records and his own admissions, had already molested more than 100 children during a 20-year period.
A sentence of death is the only appropriate punishment for such a serial assailant committing such an extraordinarily heinous crime. Two separate juries agreed, but now, 23 years after this horrendous murder, legal proceedings still continue in federal court.
As district attorney of Ventura County since 1978 and a prosecutor since 1967, I am convinced that there are some crimes that demand a sentence of death, despite recent publicity attacking the death penalty and calling for outright abolition or at least a “moratorium” until further studies are completed.
There have been 12 defendants sentenced to death in Ventura County while I have been district attorney. Their crimes included multiple murders and murders committed during the course of kidnappings and sexual assaults. These cases uniformly involve violent predators who attack the weakest, most defenseless members of our society. In one case, the defendant not only kidnapped and strangled the victim, but then committed a sex act on her dead body. In another case, an 8-year-old boy was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, strangled and then set on fire. In yet another horrific murder, an elderly husband and wife were bludgeoned in their own home during a robbery.
A decision to seek the death penalty is never made lightly. We thoroughly investigate both the crime and the defendant’s background. I then make the final decision after considering the results of this exhaustive investigation and meeting with the assigned attorneys, investigators and other staff members. The defendant’s attorneys are invited to appear at this meeting to present any information they consider relevant to the decision.
There will, of course, always be attacks on the death penalty. Some critics oppose it for moral or religious reasons, considerations that all persons have a right to decide for themselves. Other opponents claim “discriminatory enforcement"--that the death penalty is not imposed impartially among defendants of different races or backgrounds. More recently, capital punishment opponents have contended that seeking the death penalty means innocent people could be put to death. While I cannot claim to know every fact about the administration of the death penalty in other states, I would offer certain observations:
* There is a big difference between a case involving the exoneration of a defendant previously sentenced to death and one in which an innocent person is actually executed. The studies cited by death penalty opponents rely on cases where exoneration occurred before execution took place, not cases where any innocent people were actually executed. Thus, as one analyst commented, such studies appear to show that the most important error rate--innocent people who were actually executed--is zero.
* Death penalty opponents claim there are a great number of legal errors in death penalty trials. But all death verdicts are intensively reviewed by state and federal courts. The crucial issue is not whether such review ultimately discovers any technical error, but whether an alleged error in any way altered or prejudiced the ultimate jury verdict. That rarely occurs.
* Defendants charged with capital offenses in California receive high-quality representation. State law requires the provision of expert witnesses and investigator funds. Often, capital defendants retain leading experts in the scientific community to testify in their cases. Whenever a sentence of death is imposed, California law provides an automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court. At this stage, additional skilled and experienced attorneys are appointed to represent the defendant. If the state appeal is unsuccessful, another set of attorneys is appointed to take the case to federal court. These attorneys are given money for investigation and new experts.
* With the advent of DNA evidence, the chances of an innocent person being convicted and executed have been virtually eliminated in almost all cases where DNA evidence is available.
More than 130 years ago, the eminent philosopher John Stuart Mill spoke eloquently on this issue before the English Parliament: “Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable is it to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself.”
In our understandable desire to be fair and to protect the rights of offenders in our criminal justice system, let us never ignore or minimize the rights of their victims. The death penalty is a necessary tool that reaffirms the sanctity of human life while assuring that convicted killers will never again prey upon others.