Get Rid of the Death Penalty, Get Rid of Plea Bargains


Recently, editorial page editor John Diaz asked Mark Klaas whether he expects to feel closure if California executes Richard Allen Davis, the man who kidnapped, toyed with and then killed Klaas’ 12-year-old daughter, Polly, in 1993. A jury found Davis guilty and sentenced him to death in 1996.

From the early days after Davis snatched Polly from a Petaluma slumber party, Klaas has been a highly visible advocate for strong laws to protect the public, especially children, from career criminals and predators like Davis. He had come to the San Francisco Chronicle with other opponents of Proposition 34, the ballot measure that would end California’s death penalty and resentence California’s 700-plus death row inmates to life without parole.

Klaas’ answer may surprise you. He sadly shook his head and answered, “Is it going to bring any closure to me? No.”

But, Klaas added, Davis “will no longer be able to run his website.” Young girls no longer will write to him.

It turns out the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty hosts a Richard Allen Davis home page, on which the convicted killer displays “hand-painted wood hobby craft items,” which he made, and posts photos of himself. Davis also wonders whether there’s anyone out there who wants to know who he really is, and he asks, “For someone like myself, can one ever fall back in love with life again?”

Davis invites interested parties to write to him at San Quentin.

Klaas wants to see Davis executed, he told me later, because the man who killed his daughter should have no influence in this world. That, he emphasized, is “what’s supposed to stop.”

Good luck with that. Thanks to a highly successful defense lobby and federal judges who have stalled the enforcement of California law, only 13 of the state’s death row inmates have been executed since 1992.

So now the folks behind Proposition 34 argue that California’s death penalty is “too costly” and “broken beyond repair.” End the death penalty, they say, and Californians will save money on sentencing trials, costly appeals and “special death row housing.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the savings could amount to $100 million annually in the first few years.

There’s a caveat with that number. The Legislative Analyst’s Office also noted that it cannot compute the financial effect that might follow if murderers stopped pleading guilty and making plea bargains that enable them to avoid death row.

As Klaas sees it, the anti-death penalty lobby is asking Californians to disarm themselves unilaterally.

He cited cases like that of John Gardner. After the convicted sex offender was arrested for the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King in 2010, Gardner went for a deal. He admitted to killing King and also to the 2009 murder and attempted rape of 14-year-old Amber Dubois. Gardner even led authorities to Amber’s bones.

Parents Brent and Kelly King agreed to the plea bargain because, they said in a statement covered by CBS News, their family had been through “unthinkable hell” for 14 months. “We couldn’t imagine the confession to Amber’s murder never seeing the light of day, leaving an eternal question mark,” they said.

“You take the death penalty off the table,” Klaas told the Chronicle, and communities will be held hostage to the fear and uncertainty that follow when a young person goes missing. “Crimes will not be solved. Victims will not be recovered.”

Without the death penalty, it is doubtful that Jared Lee Loughner would have pleaded guilty to a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., during which he killed six and wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Given his history of mental illness, it’s not clear whether Loughner would have been found guilty.

Even when it doesn’t work, the death penalty works.

California prosecutors and California juries do not reach the death penalty lightly. Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert estimates that death row inmates represent less than 2 percent of those convicted for murder.

At least with the death penalty on the books, there’s a good chance that some of the worst offenders will agree to a sentence of life without parole in order to avoid lethal injection.

In such cases, there is quick resolution and certainty of outcome, and victims’ families need not worry about an offender’s getting off, because the defendant has no grounds for appeals. All of the outcomes that the anti-death penalty lobby extols — cheaper, faster and more certain — exist only because of the death penalty.

Why would Californians want to get rid of it?
Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].

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