Death sentence by another name
Examining the California SAFE Act
I am responding to the proposed ballot initiative "SAFE (Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement) California" that has garnered enough signatures to be on the November 2012 ballot for Californians to vote on.
The initiative was initially filed on August 26, 2011, by Jeanne Woodford, a retired warden of San Quentin State Prison and executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and it saddens me deeply that enough Californians have now signed petitions to qualify it for the ballot. I hope that this letter will enlighten you as to why this bill is unconstitutional and does a disservice to all innocent people, both on death row and beyond, and why it is wrong to advocate for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP)--which is a death sentence simply being called by another name.
I myself am a factually innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned here on California's death row for 15 years. Aside from the loss of my physical freedom, I have also lost contact with my family and have been deserted by my old friends. As if that is not cruel enough, I have been in a long fight with the federal public defenders' office, which has tried to work with the attorney general's office to deny me my constitutional right to a new trial and has refused to assign me state habeas counsel, even though this is mandated by law in my appeals process.
I have sought repeatedly to gain legal assistance for my complaints and to raise issues of my innocence in court. Sadly, my case is unique only in my steadfastness to fight on to get due process, and that the facts of my innocence are glaring and obvious. There are many people on death row who have been similarly mistreated and denied their rights in the appeals process.
So imagine, if you will, how absolutely horrifying it was to read that within Jeanne Woodford's endorsement of the SAFE California initiative, she not only seeks to end the death penalty by re-sentencing death row prisoners to LWOP (the other death penalty), but to retroactively terminate the appeal rights of current death row prisoners, like myself.
Woodford aspires to sell to the California voter a dream of ending the death penalty and saving our cash-strapped government money, when in fact she really wants to redirect the money saved from denying prisoners the right to appeal their sentence and conviction into law enforcement agencies. These agencies have a proven track record of injustice and will only further sweep all the dirt and corruption of this police state under the rug.
Within the language of the SAFE California initiative, you will find the following disturbing language that acknowledges the very problems that I have raised earlier about the state of injustice that currently exists in our capital punishment system.
The SAFE California Act Section 2, finds and declares the following:
-- 1. More than 100 innocent people have been sentenced to death in this country. (The actual number of people exonerated off death row currently stands at over 135.)
-- 2. Some innocent people have been executed.
-- 3. Experts have concluded that California remains at risk of executing innocent people.
-- 4. Innocent people are wrongfully convicted because of faulty eyewitness identification, outdated forensic science and overzealous prosecutors.
-- 5. The justice system is not doing what needs to be done to protect innocent people from coming to death row.
-- 6. State law protects a prosecutor even if he/she intentionally sends an innocent person to prison or death row, thus preventing accountability.
Let's take a moment to put these admissions in proper perspective. This reflects what many of us who have been fighting for real justice have known for years: the criminal justice system in this country and state is inherently flawed, and innocent people have died and will die as a result. Prosecutors who have willingly participated in this injustice are protected, not made accountable for their abuses of power and misconduct, and this is what is meant by "equality and fairness" under the law.
This initiative does nothing to address these problems and instead seeks to limit prisoner appeals, which would actually make things worse.
Also in the SAFE California initiative is language that insists that one of its missions is to "get murderers off the streets, brought to justice and punished with full enforcement of the law." (Sections 2 and 3.)
However, you cannot find anywhere within the entire initiative where there is any proposal for how to implement any state laws that would hold corrupt law enforcement agents or prosecutors accountable for their misconduct or for sending an innocent person to death row--the equivalent of false imprisonment and attempted murder, or actual murder, if the person was executed.
How can such facts as listed above be admitted so candidly, but then SAFE California have no means by which to make change and no means by which to hold perpetrators of this injustice accountable?
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Jeanne Woodford appears to have adopted a "sweep it under the rug" philosophy towards the justice system and doesn't give a damn about justice or addressing any of the serious ailments of California's broken justice system. She has insensitively proposed as a resolution in the initiative to overlook any and all factually innocent people currently on death row by eliminating appeals, and instead simply states that eliminating the execution of innocent people is somehow justice enough.
Her mission as outlined within the "purpose and intent" section includes the following goals:
-- 1. End the death penalty.
-- 2. Re-sentence death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.
-- 3. Terminate all death penalty appeals.
-- 4. Require every prisoner with LWOP to work to pay into a victim compensation fund as desired by the prison.
Wait! I am certain that the state and federal constitutions guarantee citizens the right to utilize the writ of habeas corpus and challenge the legality and validity of their convictions, sentences and detentions.
Currently, California law mandates that all people given a death sentence are due a post-conviction appeal. This appeal includes both direct and habeas components. The California Supreme Court is responsible for providing appellate counsel for all indigent death row prisoners. There are over 300 people on death row in California who have been here for over 10 years, myself included, who have not yet received appointment of counsel. I have been waiting over 15 years to clear my name.
The very language of this initiative admits that, statistically, there is a one-in-nine probability that people on death row right now in the state are factually innocent--which means that approximately 77 people are awaiting justice.
The SAFE California initiative is no more than a slow death for all those currently incarcerated on California's death row--still death just by a different name. It also seeks to retroactively terminate all death row prisoners' appeal rights, which means more innocent people will die and more injustices will be carried out. How will it be possible for the innocent to prove their innocence?
Jeanne Woodford is on a mission to not only end the death penalty by bringing in "the other death penalty"--LWOP--but also to appeal to voters by callously limiting prisoner appeals, after admitting that the justice system is flawed and that innocent people are falsely sentenced to death row.
This initiative is not about saving lives, but about keeping innocent people behind bars and limiting their rights to clear their names.
This was first published at socialistworker.org.
Darrell Lomax is an innocent man who has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California for over 15 years. A poet, musician and activist, Darryl has been fighting for his freedom and advocating for justice. You can write to Darrel at:
P.O. Box K-27402
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
In November, the people of California will be voting on a ballot measure that could repeal the death penalty there. Since it won a place on the ballot, the SAFE Act has been a topic of discussion and important debate among criminal justice reform activists. The measure has the potential to take over 700 people off death row in one of the largest death penalty states - yet the "tough on crime" proposals at the heart of the SAFE Act are leading a growing number of activists to turn against it.
0ver the next several months the Campaign to End the Death Penalty will be providing a forum about this debate on our website through a new blog titled "Examining the Califonia SAFE Act."
This blog project aims to collect various news articles, editorials and especially prisoners writing about this initiative. We would love folks to send our way any articles or writings that you think will add to this discussion. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com