Help keep us alive

Open letter to the readers of the SJRA Advocate

By: Douglas Scott Mickey

The February 2012 issue of the SFRA Advocate contained two Anti-Initiative (SAFE California act) articles.  One was written by Judith Tannenbaum, who used to teach poetry at San Quentin.  The second was written by “Spoon” Jackson, who has apparently spent the last 35 years in California’s Prisons on an LWOP sentence.

Judith Tannenbaum sums up her “open letter to Supporters of the SAFE California Act” with: "Personally, I can’t imagine voting against abolishing the death penalty, and I also can’t imagine voting for an initiative that pretends LWOP is a solution.”

The politically savvy authors of Proposition 34 (the SAFE California Act) were not suggesting, let alone pretending, “LWOP is a solution.”  The majority of Californians are for capital punishment. The Initiative faces the cold, hard, socio-political fact that in a democratic society, for a minority to effectively negotiate a reasonable compromise with a determined majority, that minority must offer something persuasive in exchange that will compel the majority to agree to the transaction. The SAFE Initiative offers a “lesser of two evils” designed to assure the pro-capital punishment majority that there is a flagrantly harsh, safe, less expensive option to strapping someone down and killing them. The compromise the Initiative is hoping to negotiate is an even more Draconian version of the current LWOP laws. It’s not pretending to be a SOLUTION.   Proposition 34 is confronting the grim socio-political reality of this moral dilemma head-on.  Its LWOP is calculated to be an extremely severe, safe, and less expensive replacement to the Irreversible Final Solution of eventually killing well over the 725 human beings currently warehoused in California’s Death Rows.

“Spoon” Jackson wrote:  “Personally, I wish I had gotten a death sentence.  It is a known-fact that I would have gotten top-notch lawyers and most likely would have been out of prison by now.  Thirty-five years later, sitting here with Life Without Parole is not living.  It’s death as surely as the sea is full of life.”

The odds are that anyone who received a death sentence 35 years ago would now “most likely” be dead or doing LWOP.  The reality is that over forty percent of the people currently being warehoused on California’s Death Row don’t even have attorneys.  Of those that do, very few of their attorneys have had any experience with appealing capital cases.  In fact, too many of them are just out of law school and have never even argued a case before a jury.  They tend to see the appeal’s claims as being their client, while the real flesh and blood clients, the Condemned, are routinely treated with condescension.  Inexperienced attorneys approach Capital cases with preconceived notions, ignore the client’s concerns, and view the appeal with tunnel vision because they are so overwhelmed by the complexities that they can’t master all the relevant facts.

 There are a few attorneys the Condemned population considers “top-notch.”  But they are the rare exception, not the norm.  Even though Tommy Thompson and Jaturun Siripongs were most likely innocent or that Manny Babbit was certified as being mentally retarded, all three of these human beings were executed in spite of the fact they were defended by “top-notch lawyers.”  Having a “top-notch” attorney doesn’t override the fact that it all comes down to a Luck of the Draw whether your case is reviewed by a judge or panel of judges who are conservative, moderate, or liberal.  Each judge approaches capital cases with his or her own preconceived socio-political biases that heavily color how they view a case. 

 In Tommy Thompson’s case the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found he had been “erroneously convicted.”  But the U. S. Supreme Court denied him clemency and held him accountable for the Ninth Circuit “failing to meet the procedural deadline for filing its decision.”   The U.S. Supreme Court said it was not concerned with issues of guilt or innocence; its judicial providence was only to ensure “due process” was exercised.  Tommy was strapped down and killed shortly after 12:01 a.m. on July 14, 1998 – even though it had been judiciously ruled that he had been “erroneously convicted.”  Tommy was one of thirteen human beings who lost his life in California’s “casino-type” justice system, so far . . .

Approximately 60 percent of all death sentences that have been appealed thus far have been overturned.  Of that sixty percent, most death sentences were reduced to Life Without Possibility of Parole.  Only a dozen or so received lesser sentences, and of those most all were given 25 to Life sentences. Only a half a dozen Condemned Men have been released from prison since 1978. 

According to California Department of Corrections (CDC) March 7, 2011 posting, nearly one hundred men have died on San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row since 1978. CDC lists 53 Condemned men and one Condemned woman as having died of “natural causes;” mostly due to poor and almost non-existent medical health care services for the Condemned Population. The only Mental Health Care Services offered Condemned inmates are psychotropic drugs and an evaluation to “determine psychological fitness for execution.”

 CDC then lists six Condemned men as having died from Other Causes.  These include the following: 1) wrongful shooting, 2) heart attack after pepper spray exposure, 3) stabbed on exercise yard, 4) drug overdose, 5) acute drug toxicity (caused by being prescribed the wrong medication), 6) simply listed as having died from “Other,” no explanation given.  My point here is that some of these men and women were appointed “top-notch” attorneys.  But good attorneys are no protection against the relentless stress of the trials and tribulations that plague the Condemned population.

I suspect when good men like Tommy, Jaturun, and Manny were being strapped down they weren’t thinking “Life Without Parole is not living!”  LWOP might not be living, but when the execution team is strapping you down, an LWOP sentence is a far cry from being “death a surely as the sea is full of life.” 

Speaking of the sea being “full of life,” to those human beings on California’s Death Rows awaiting execution, LWOP looks like a life raft and the Death Penalty looks like a sinking ship out in the middle of the ocean.  Time is running out, the ship is sinking fast, we need a life raft NOW. . . not a 5-star luxury liner later.  We might not get rescued, but as long as we have LWOP for a life raft, then there’s always hope.  In the meantime, we can use that life raft to make the most out of living off the sea of Prison Misery while waiting and hoping for rescue. 

No “top-notch” lawyers are going to miraculously appear like knights in shining armor.  They are few and far between.  Those that actually exist are already busy working their fingers to the bone to save their client’s life, which usually means settling for an LWOP or losing their client to the EXECUTIONER. 

 LWOP might not be a “reasonable sentence” or even a humane “solution,” but if passed this SAFE INITIATIVE can do what it’s intended to do--HELP KEEP US ALIVE --until the good people of California think of something more forgiving.


Douglas Scott Mickey is on death row in California. You can write to Douglas at:

C73900 NB S6 30

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 or