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December 26, 2011

California's chief justice joins growing chorus lamenting state's ineffective death penalty

The Los Angeles Times ran this notable piece a few days ago under the headline "California chief justice urges reevaluating death penalty; Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, one of the high court's more conservative members, says the death penalty is no longer working for the state." Here is how the piece begins:

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who heads the state's judicial branch and its highest court, said in an interview that the death penalty is no longer effective in California and suggested she would welcome a public debate on its merits and costs.

During an interview in her chambers, as she prepared to close up shop for the holidays, the Republican appointee and former prosecutor made her first public statements about capital punishment a year after she took the helm of the state's judiciary and at a time when petitions are being gathered for an initiative to abolish the death penalty.

"I don't think it is working," said Cantil-Sakauye, elevated from the Court of Appeal in Sacramento to the California Supreme Court by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It's not effective. We know that." California's death penalty requires "structural change, and we don't have the money to create the kind of change that is needed," she said. "Everyone is laboring under a staggering load."

In response to a question, she said she supported capital punishment "only in the sense I apply the law and I believe the system is fair.... In that sense, yes." But the chief justice quickly reframed the question. "I don't know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?"

Cantil-Sakauye's comments suggest a growing frustration with capital punishment even among conservatives and a resignation that the system cannot be fixed as long as California's huge financial problems persist.

Her predecessor, retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, was similarly disheartened. A former prosecutor who defended the state's death penalty before the U.S. Supreme Court, George concluded in his later years on the California Supreme Court that the system was "dysfunctional."

Cantil-Sakauye, 53, alluded to the proposed ballot measure to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole but declined to say whether she supported that plan. "That really is up to the voters or to the Legislature," she said, asking whether the criminal justice system can "make better use of our resources."

December 26, 2011 at 01:41 PM | Permalink


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Prosecutor - I'm against in revoking death penalty is it because many notorious criminals will take advantage on it because a several years or a life sentence won't scare them and inf act I'm sure that the crime rate will definitely increase.

Posted by: Adrian | Dec 27, 2011 6:24:04 AM

Geez, even the conservatives who actually have to deal with this mess on a daily basis are ready to scrap it and put resources elsewhere... maybe the referendum does have a chance.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 29, 2011 6:00:59 PM

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