MORE

Don Heller, Same Lawyer Who Wrote California Death Penalty, Now Fighting to Abolish It

The court of public opinion was in an uproar yesterday, both in the hours before and after Georgia man Troy Davis was executed by the government for a crime he maintains he didn't commit. By this morning, #RIPTroyDavis was still trending. Even L.A. pop princess Kim Kardashian devoted a good six Tweets to the cause, reiterating the common perception that there was still #TooMuchDoubt surrounding Davis' murder case to go to such extremes.

Which brings us to California, where capital punishment is likewise still legal. Republican attorney Don Heller made sure of that in the late 1970s, when he penned a ballot initiative that would reinstate the court's harshest sentence. But he's since had a change of heart and mind:

In a column run by the LA Daily News a few days ago, Heller argues that "life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence."

But he doesn't so much oppose justice by way of lethal injection for the same reasons Twitter's so hot and bothered right now -- because of its capacity to eradicate a potentially innocent man before he's exhausted a lifetime of appeals. Instead, Heller argues that the Golden State's system is clunky, ineffective and damn expensive.

The numbers are pretty embarrassing (even for California, the capital of convoluted laws with unintended consequences):

"California spends more than $300 million per execution. We have executed 13 people since 1978. No executions have occurred since 2006, and there are 714 persons on Death Row. The average time between death sentences and executions is 25 years and in some cases more than 30 years."

Heller's open admission of his decades-old mistake is seriously refreshing -- if only all Sacramento's bigshots could be so open about their moments of legislative weakness, we might have a chance at untangling the mess of laws and politics that has so frustratingly gridlocked our progress as a state.

Heller writes:

"But the death penalty initiative that I drafted was drawn up without fiscal study, input from others, or committee hearings. I made sure that the legal structure that I created would meet tough constitutional standards and checked my work against relevant U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence. But there was none of the give and take envisioned by our forefathers when they created the legislative process more than 200 years ago. Essentially, I wrote alone and the fiscal impact was never considered by the sponsors or myself."
Heller speaks out against the death penalty.
Heller speaks out against the death penalty.

Partly because we're such a liberal, ACLU-charged state with strong opinions about perceived injustices like Davis', death row has been flooded in lawsuits that have succeeded in clogging the system -- but, in keeping inmates and costly appeals alive, they've made it even more a cash drain.

That's why Heller, along with various ex-law-enforcement officials and anti-death-penalty activists, introduced the SAFE California Act in late August. The 2012 ballot initiative converts death-penalty sentences to life imprisonment (without the possibility of parole), then "takes $30 million of the dollars saved per year, for three years, and puts it into a special fund that will be used to solve more murder and rape cases."

Finally: Something fiscal conservatives and social liberals can agree on, outside of party gridlock.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


Sponsor Content