JARVIS MASTERS On California’s Failed Anti-Death Penalty Initiative

An Open Letter on California’s Proposition 34 — “SAFE California”— to Death Penalty Focus from Jarvis Jay Masters, an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row

The 2012 election is over, with its victories, defeats, candidates, and propositions.  California’s Proposition 34, the so-called “SAFE California” initiative failed, falling short with 47.3% of the popular vote.  A large percentage, for sure, but not enough to win.  Where I live, on San Quentin’s East Block Death Row, the election night defeat of Prop 34 was met with loud cheers and with fears.

From the moment SAFE California (The Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement for California Act) was announced, I have objected to the message that has come from Death Penalty Focus’s Jeanne Woodford, who introduced the campaign and Natasha Minsker, the campaign’s director.

Several days after the election, Minsker wrote:

“We came stunningly close to our ultimate goal of passing Proposition 34, and together we shared the real facts with millions of voters about our broken system and changed the conversation about the death penalty in California — and the United States — forever.”

It seems to me that the campaign was incredibly selective about the “real facts” they shared with voters. The emphasis of Prop 34 was on economics, on savings of $130 million each year if California’s death row inhabitants were moved to a sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP). It noted that California has spent more than $4 billion dollars since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, with 14 executions and 725 prisoners presently on the row. Promises were given that funds saved from capital punishment would be redirected to law enforcement.

In their literature, lip-service was given to the possibility that sooner or later the state would execute an innocent man or woman.  But I believe that supporters of an anti-death penalty proposition and Death Penalty Focus should have done what every other state has done in abolishing the death penalty.  It is a matter of innocence, not economics.  It is a matter of race and equal application of justice.

Instead, as weeks and months of the campaign unfolded, death row prisoners were portrayed as privileged over other prisoners. Campaign literature says:

“Death row inmates live in special housing (individual cells), and have special lawyers, exercise and visitor privileges and taxpayer-funded appeals that last for decades.  Yes on 34 puts an end to waste and special privileges.”

Is living with death hanging over you day after day a privilege?  Is a principled process of legal appeal in the face of state-sanctioned killing – a penalty abolished by virtually every other nation in the western world – a privilege?

For many years Death Penalty Focus has been a powerful and articulate voice for abolition.  It’s arguments have, of course, included the economics of capital punishment. But they always spoke for the innocent, for the impossibility of equal application of the law – looking at race, class, legal representation, and the varied financial resources of local jurisdictions – and the families of victims and the prisoners, all of whom also pay a steep price for the death penalty.

I wonder why Death Penalty Focus remained silent on these issues during this campaign?  I wonder why they chose Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin who presided over four executions without apology, to direct their organization? Why did it pitch a proposition that argued that condemned prisoners, if anything, deserve worse than capitol punishment, life without parole with government-mandated and funded appeals stripped away?  You could say it is just politics.  But I would respond you are trading on my life, my innocence, and the lives of many here on the row.  And you never even came to talk with us about it. 

About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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