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End State Murder? Not So Simple

People on death row opposing a proposition to end the death penalty. Say what?

California’s Prop 34, known as the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, or SAFE California Act, bills itself as a way to save money, keep people safer (from criminals), and guard against the possibility of executing an innocent person.  Sounds pretty good, right?  A win in California would appear to save the lives of the 725 inmates currently facing execution by the state.  Who could argue with that?

Kevin Cooper

As it turns out, Prop 34 has encountered criticism and opposition not only from organizations committed to eliminating capital punishment (like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty), but also from death row inmates themselves, including noted Buddhist author Jarvis Masters, and fellow San Quentin inmates and activists Correll Thomas and Kevin Cooper.  In a point-counterpoint piece in SF BayView, Cooper notes with grave concern:

At no time was I or, to my knowledge, any man or woman who resides on death row within this state asked our opinion about the SAFE California Act by the sponsors of this initiative, the people who bankrolled it or the people who collected signatures in support of it. I wonder why that is?

Jarvis Jay Masters

Correll Thomas

Cooper, Thomas, and the organizers with CEDP spell out their reservations with the proposition.  They point to the ways it still supports a severely racist criminal (in)justice system.  (The saved money funneled into law enforcement is supposed to go specifically toward “increasing the rate at which homicide and rape cases are solved,” but the money-distribution language includes the slippery clause, “including but not limited to…”) They note that Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) will likely reassign death row inmates to equally inhumane or even worse incarceration conditions, with further separation from family and loved ones.  They emphasize the hopelessness that would arise from slashing of resources for appeals, as only 14 of California’s death row prisoners have exhausted their appeals processes.

According to some sources, the majority of California’s death row inmates actually oppose the measure — though, of course, as disenfranchised people, they can’t vote.

Donald Ray Young

At the same time, inmates like Donald Ray Young and other anti-death-penalty activists support the measure, arguing that it may not be perfect, but it’s an important step.  Then, the arguably cruel and unusual punishment of LWOP itself could become the next fight on the horizon.

What do you think?  How did/will/would you vote on Prop 34, if you can/will vote at all?

One last thing: please note that apart from the title, you won’t find the phrase “state murder” anywhere in this piece.  That’s because the death penalty and state murder are too often held as synonymous in the U.S., when in fact state killing is much broader!  To end it, we will need to confront cops gunning down black and brown people, state troopers and vigilantes shooting migrants at the border, drones murdering families in Pakistan, proxy attacks in Palestine, and all manner of slow killings carried out via poverty and trauma under capitalism. Why would we define state murder in such a limited way?

Please keep this in mind as you share your thoughts!  Looking forward to hearing from folks — I know a lot of y’all work directly on the death penalty issue.  Thanks to Alan Senauke and Jarvis Masters for alerting us to the deeper complexities of Prop 34, and to the various engaged Buddhists who’ve already shared with us their arguments for and against the measure.


Top photo: This injection table, with straps, would be used for the exectuion of a condemned prisoner. Officials from San Quentin State Prison display the newly completed Lethal Injection Facility, on Tuesday Sept. 21, 2010 in San Quentin, Calif. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle / SF

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Comments (4)

  • JPK

    For once I agree with the vile creatures on DR. Glad the measure ultimately failed. Let them die behind bars, natural or otherwise. And that monster Kevin Cooper, oh the irony of him speaking about “injustice and rights.” That’s rich. I am sure the innocent family, including the tree children he butchered, luckily on survived to testify against him, would heartily disagree. LWOP and the DP are not going anywhere. Even if they don’t use the DP as much as the MAJORITY would like! it ain’t going away. And for sure LWOP isn’t.

  • JPK

    THREE children; ONE survived.

  • Aaron

    I would remind you that Buddha educated the evil beings he came across in this world. He realised that their actions were a result of them being born into bad conditions and lacking positive influences. He also had faith that they could change and were not forever bound by their previous actions. The people who commit shocking actions are in truth the most miserable of beings, often coping with a lifetimes of abuse and neglect and living only for brief pleasure or survival. Perhaps we should reflect on this reality before declaring others to be monsters. Besides what would killing them achieve, they would only return to repeat their mistakes. It is better to emulate the Buddha and try and educate these people now (before they hurt others.)

  • Joel whiting

    SO IMPORTANT!!! I question the use of the term “evil’ Thank you all so much! Meta… Coevolution

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