Friday, March 25, 2011

The Hanging Judge

There is a remarkable essay up in the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times today. It is written by Donald A. McCartin, a retired Superior Court judge, who describes himself as a right-wing Republican and who is proud of the fact that he was known as a "hanging judge" when it came to the capital punishment cases he heard. Although he had long been a proponent of state-mandated killing, he now concludes that the death penalty just isn't worth the effort and the cost to society.

During that time, I presided over 10 murder cases in which I sentenced the convicted men to die. As a result, I became known as "the hanging judge of Orange County," an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.

The 10 were deemed guilty of horrifying crimes by their peers, and in the jurors' view as well as mine they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, not one of them has been executed (though one died in prison of natural causes).

And therein lies the rub, according to Judge McCartin. For thirty years he has watched countless appeals and retrials as the defendants asserted all sorts of theories as to why they should not be put to death by the state. He also has watched the suffering of victims' families as their wounds are reopened with each appeal and each legal decision. The judge does not object to the legal process involved, however:

... I have followed the development of legal thinking and understand why our nation's Supreme Court, in holding that "death is different," has required that special care be taken to safeguard the rights of those sentenced to death. Such wisdom protects our society from returning to the barbarism of the past. And though I find it discomfiting and to a significant degree embarrassing that appellate courts have found fault with some of my statements, acts or decisions, I can live with the fact that their findings arise out of an attempt to ensure that the process has been scrupulously fair before such a sentence is carried out.

What he objects to is the massive waste of court time and taxpayer dollars in ensuring that the process has been scrupulously fair. Knowing now what he apparently hadn't considered then, the judge admits he probably should have imposed the alternative sentence to the perpetrators of the ultimate crime: life imprisonment without possibility of parole. It would have saved untold anguish to the victims' families and millions of government dollars, dollars that the state really needs right now, and still kept the public safe.

I watch today as Gov. Brown wrestles with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear him say he doesn't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs — and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been falsely promised with death sentences that will never be carried out.

The hanging judge has changed his mind. As a left wing Democrat, his is not the argument I would use for eliminating the death penalty from our society, but it is one that is both cogent and based in fact. As such, it deserves the hearing I hope it gets from the publication by the Times.

Nicely said, Your Honor.



Blogger shrimplate said...

Life without parole (or "death by incarceration, as Mario Cuomo called it,) is cheaper to administer than the death penalty

10:51 AM  

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