Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Report Proposes Reforms for State’s Death Penalty System
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued its final report yesterday, recommending $95 million in changes to the state’s current death penalty system.
However the non-partisan statewide advisory board’s 117-page report—which alternatively recommended limiting the number of death-qualifying special circumstances or abolishing capital punishment entirely—was the subject of criticism even before its release, with detractors contending that the circumstances of the commission’s creation and its makeup raised doubts as to its impartiality.
The report claimed to be the first comprehensive review by an official body of the state’s death penalty procedures since the state death penalty was enacted in 1977.
Committee Chairman John Van de Kamp, a former attorney general and State Bar president, called the current system “dysfunctional,” explaining that the state houses approximately 670 inmates on death row, but has only held 13 executions in the past 30 years.
He said the state’s high court is unable to keep pace with the number of appeals and habeas petitions filed by the condemned, creating such a backlog that an average of 25 years elapses between the time of judgment and the date of execution.
The commission, in its report, unanimously recommended funding a series of changes to the process to reduce the delay to match the estimated national average of about 12 years, Van de Kamp said.
“Everyone agrees that this system is heading towards collapse, if it is not there already,” he commented.
Acknowledging that some opponents of the death penalty might welcome this prospect, Van de Kamp emphasized that the report did not opine on the legality of capital punishment, and that both death penalty opponents and supporters on the commission had agreed that capital punishment had to be carried out with reasonable dispatch to function effectively.
The commission also unanimously recommended increasing the number of attorneys who could accept appointments to handle death penalty trials and appeals, and the appropriation of funds to fully reimburse counties for payments for defense services and the expenses of homicide trials.
A majority voted to recommend serious consideration of a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit the California Supreme Court to transfer fully briefed pending death penalty appeals from the Supreme Court to the Courts of Appeal.
A majority of the commission also recommended requiring more factual hearings and findings in state habeas proceedings in death penalty cases; allowing petitions to be filed in the superior court, with right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and discretionary review by the California Supreme Court; and the establishment of a Death Penalty Review Panel to continuously monitor the application of the death penalty.
Members of the commission included Attorney General Jerry Brown, Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Moulds of the Eastern District of California, and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton.
However, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a crime victim’s rights organization headquartered in Sacramento, criticized the commission and its report in a release issued this morning before the report was made public.
The foundation argued that commission—which was created in 2004 by then-Senate President Pro-Tem John Burton to study and review the administration of criminal justice, and make recommendations and proposals to ensure the fair administration of criminal justice in California—was intended to enable Burton, whom it described as a “fierce opponent of capital punishment,” to create a commission to his liking without compromising with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a death penalty supporter.
Arguing also that the commission’s chairs were capital punishment opponents, and criticizing the independence of the research upon which the commission relied, foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger said that his group lacked confidence that the commission would produce “a balanced and thoughtful examination of the death penalty in California and not the recitation of defense-side talking points that we have seen in so many other states.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company