Seeking an End to an Execution Law They Once Championed
ADAM NAGOURNEY, NY Times, Apr. 6, 2012
The campaign was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.
Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.
Partly, they changed their minds for moral reasons. But they also have a political argument to make.
“At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, cherries and (unsuccessfully, so far) black Périgord truffles.
“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”
California is not the first state to reconsider the death penalty in an era of questions about its morality and effectiveness. And even with these unusual advocates — and a new argument, that the death penalty has cost the state a fortune but produced only 13 executions in 34 years — the repeal faces tough going.
This is a state with a history of colorful crimes and criminals; polls here invariably find strong support for executions. Indeed, the older Mr. Briggs says that, unlike his son, his mind remains unchanged.
But Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller bring to this campaign a powerful and evocative story: a bid for personal redemption and a call for renewed consideration of the arguments they themselves once made in favor of the death sentence.
“It’s been a colossal failure,” Mr. Heller said in his Sacramento office. “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.”
Mr. Heller said that when the elder Mr. Briggs asked him to draft the initiative, using skills he learned working for the legendary Manhattan district attorney Frank S. Hogan, he wholeheartedly supported executions. “The fact that it was upheld every time it went to the Supreme Court shows it was well drafted,” Mr. Heller said ruefully. “I don’t take pleasure in that anymore.”
The two men add a personal element to a death penalty debate that is clearly evolving here, as opponents marshal an argument of waste in a state that is bleeding money. A report last year found that California was spending $184 million a year on a cottage industry of lawyers, expert witnesses and supersecure prisons to deal with the death row population created by Proposition 7.
“The cost is the most politically neutral argument,” said Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor and one of the authors of the report. “We’ve debated the morality of the death penalty for decades. We’ve tried very hard to focus on the objective cost issue, because that’s something that people who differ on all the other issues can reach a consensus on.”