BY COURTNEY MINICK ’06, ATTORNEY, JUSTIA, INC.
This November, Californians may have an opportunity to replace the death penalty once and for all. The SAFE California ballot initiative changes Cal. Pen. Code §190 to replace the death penalty with life without parole. If passed, this initiative will save the state $1 billion, improve public safety, and protect innocent people.
At Santa Clara Law, we have a long and proud tradition of criminal justice reform, rooted in the Jesuit traditions of social responsibility, which has helped set the stage for this important moment. I hope that SCU Law alumni will join me in supporting this historic effort.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve opposed the death penalty, but it wasn’t until law school that I became actively committed to ending it. In my first year of law school, Ellen Kreitzberg’s Criminal Law class opened my eyes to the terrible problems with the capital punishment system. I learned about ineffective defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, sentencing disparities, and the true emotional and economic costs of the death penalty. I went to Ellen’s office hours and said, “I want to do something about this!” She put me in touch with Death Penalty Focus, where I have volunteered ever since. As an intern, I worked on capital appeals and habeas corpus petitions. In 2008, I joined the board of directors.
I’m not sure my passion would have been sparked at just any law school. As a Jesuit institution, Santa Clara Law embodies ideals of ethics and social justice in its curriculum, and has a long tradition of education, support, and advocacy for criminal justice reform. From educating students with classes like the Capital Punishment Seminar to training trial counsel at the Death Penalty College, Santa Clara Law has been a leader in educating the public about the death penalty. The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) has freed more than 13 men and women who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. The Santa Clara Law Review has published seminal articles on the enormous cost burden and geographic disparities in death sentences. Santa Clara Law Professors Gerald Uelmen and Cookie Ridolfi served on the bipartisan California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, whose report highlighted the intractable problems with capital punishment in California, and recommended that it be fixed or ended before an innocent person was executed.
In this way, Santa Clara Law puts the ideals espoused by the Catholic Church into practice. Opposition to the death penalty is such an important part of the Catholic tradition that the California Conference of Bishops have endorsed the SAFE California campaign even before the initiative formally qualifies, stating “As Catholics we hold human life as sacred. In the exercise of justice, this principle must prevail in the manner we treat one another, even those who have done grave harm.... We have long held that the use of the death penalty is no longer necessary.”
The campaign’s concerns are also imbued with important practical considerations. First, it saves an enormous amount of taxpayer money. Recent research shows that the death penalty has cost Californians $4 billion since it was reinstated in 1978—that’s $184 million a year more than life without parole. Experts estimate that California’s death penalty will cost the state another $1 billion over the next five years.
Second, ending the death penalty frees up resources to help make our communities safer. A shocking 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved every year in California. The initiative sets aside $100 million over three years to help local law enforcement solve open crimes and make our communities safer by freeing up limited funds for DNA testing, witness relocation, and the like.
Finally, we know that innocent people are convicted every day. There is an equal risk that innocent people will be executed. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States, 140 people have been exonerated from death row. Three of them were in California. NCIP recently freed Franky Carillo, was imprisoned for 20 years for a murder he did not commit. Mistakes happen, and death cannot be undone.
Here at this crossroads, we have the opportunity to demonstrate our deep commitment to justice once more and end death sentencing in California. As lawyers and as alumni of Santa Clara Law, we must ensure justice for all, and we need to make our voices heard and speak out in favor of this initiative. Be a part of this historic moment. Talk to your friends, donate, and get involved to help us in this momentous effort. Together, we can make history in California. Together, we can win.
For more information, please visit www.safecalifornia.org.