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?
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?
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.
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