Friday, March 14, 2003
Prosecutor, Activist Dispute Death Penalty at Forum
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A veteran prosecutor and an attorney who actively opposes capital punishment squared off yesterday at a lunchtime debate sponsored by student bar groups at Southwestern University School of Law.
“You cannot bring back a person who is wrongly convicted,” Stephen Rohde declared. Rohde is a Century City attorney and the vice president of Death Penalty Focus, the San Francisco-based abolitionist group headed by actor/director Mike Farrell.
Los Angeles Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Livesay countered that the antidote for wrongful conviction is a fair process overseen by honest prosecutors, not the abolition of a form of punishment that society supports as a means of vindicating the rights of victims.
Livesay, a prosecutor since 1965, became chief deputy district attorney in 1979, shortly after California restored capital punishment, and held the post until 1991. He then retired and joined the criminal defense bar, but returned to prosecution after Steve Cooley’s election as district attorney three years ago and has now returned to his former post as the No. 2 member of the office.
Livesay took the lead role, during his first stint as chief deputy, in developing the procedures by which the office determines in which cases it should seek the death penalty. The committee of senior prosecutors that makes that decision, he noted, rejects the death penalty in 90 percent of the cases it reviews.
The committee review is appropriate, Livesay said, because the death penalty—a subject on which he said he has always had ambivalent views—should only be applied in a “narrow, narrow” category of cases. But the fact that the ultimate punishment is sought in so small a percentage of cases, Rohde argued, shows the freakish nature of the death penalty rather than the carefulness of the process.
“Yes, it is subjective,” Livesay acknowledged. “I don’t equate that with a flawed system.”
Rohde disputed the argument, made by Livesay, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Gov. Gray Davis, and other supporters of the California death penalty that the types of abuses that have occurred in other states—such as those that led Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute all of his state’s death sentences before leaving office—are uncharacteristic of the California process.
Rohde referred to a study, now completed and soon to be made public, by Robert Sanger, a criminal law specialist from Santa Barbara. Sanger compared the 85 death penalty reforms advocated by Ryan’s study commission to current California law, and concluded that only six percent of the reforms have been implemented here.
Livesay said he was looking forward to seeing Sanger’s report, and that he did not dispute that the process was capable of improvement. He said he supports any change that will assure that only the truly guilty and most deserving are executed, including expanded use of DNA and other scientific evidence.
“Bring it on,” he commented.
Rohde agreed that better scientific evidence is a good thing, but warned against “getting carried away with the idea that we have found the magic bullet.” Better science won’t correct the problem of faulty eyewitness accounts, he said, adding that the prospects of executing the wrong person is not the only fault of the death penalty, which he opposes in all circumstances on moral grounds.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company