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OPINION: Fix California’s death penalty process

By MICHAEL RAMOS, San Bernardino County District Attorney
Published: January 03, 2014; 07:51 PM


Two things about the death penalty in California are true: The death penalty system is broken and the voters have continually voted to keep the death penalty (“Inland juries vote for execution, but capital punishment is on hold,” Dec. 28). In 2012, California voters rejected Prop. 34, an effort to repeal the death penalty, even though the opponents of the death penalty spent more than $7 million in their attempt to repeal it.

Instead of trying to fix the problem, opponents want to throw the baby out with the bath water and abolish it altogether. The death penalty system in California is not beyond fixing. There are common sense reforms that would improve the system while still giving the accused their constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. However, the Legislature has refused to even consider these reforms.

I recently joined a group of district attorneys, law enforcement groups and victims’ advocates to file an initiative to take these reforms to the voters.

The death penalty is not the answer to every crime. It should be used only when the crime is so horrendous that a jury finds that the only penalty appropriate is execution. Such as in the case of Kevin Cooper, one of San Bernardino County’s most notorious killers, sentenced to die in 1985 for killing a Chino Hills family and an 11-year-old neighbor who was visiting. Cooper has been sitting on death row for 28 years. He has appealed 10 times each to the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The California Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2014 will ask the voters of California to do three things: Reform the appeals process; reform death row housing and restitution; and reform the appointment of appellate counsel and agency oversight.

By applying these common sense reforms, we can ensure that the convicted receive their constitutional rights to a fair and speedy appeals process. Our initiative will move the first appeal to the California Court of Appeal and then to the California Supreme Court if necessary. The California Supreme Court is overloaded with death penalty appeals, causing lengthy and unnecessary delays. Spreading these appeals among the Courts of Appeal will allow the defendants’ claims to be heard sooner.

Currently, death row inmates spend their days in a single-person cell with their own television, radio and other luxury items. They are not required to work or pay restitution for their crimes. Death row inmates should be required to work in prison to pay restitution to their victims’ families consistent with the Victims’ Bill of Rights (Marsy’s law). Refusal to work and pay restitution should result in loss of special privileges.

Finally, reforming the existing inefficient appeals process for death penalty cases will ensure fairness for both defendants and victims. Capital defendants wait five years or more for appointments of their appellate lawyer. By providing prompt appointment of appellate attorneys, the defendant’s claims will be heard sooner when the evidence is still fresh and witnesses are still available.

One of the reasons for the delay is that the state agency that is supposed to expedite secondary review of death penalty cases operates with no effective oversight, causing delays and wasting taxpayer dollars. The California Supreme Court should be given the authority of oversight of this agency and tasked with ensuring accountability.

California’s 730-plus death row inmates have murdered more than 1,000 people, including 229 children and 43 police officers. I stand with the victims and their families to unite for changes in California’s death penalty system. California needs to stand by its promise to protect its citizens and bring justice to the victims.

Mike Ramos is the district attorney of San Bernardino County.

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It is the mission of the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office to represent the interests of the people in the criminal justice system, as mandated by California State law. The San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office serves the residents of San Bernardino County by: seeking the truth, protecting the innocent; holding the guilty accountable; preserving the dignity of victims and their families; and, ensuring that justice is done while always maintaining the highest ethical standards.

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