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‘Do they deserve death?’: Diverse coalition kicks off ‘Yes-on-62’ campaign

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Activists gather at Grand Park in Downtown L.A. on July 14 to kick off the Yes on 62 campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November to eliminate the death penalty in California. (photo/Victor Aleman)

“In 1978, my dad and I worked very hard to pass the Briggs initiative, which is today’s death penalty law here in California,” his son Ron Briggs, then a supervisor in El Dorado County, declared at an outdoor press conference at Grand Park near Downtown L.A. on July 14.

“We thought back then that we would deliver swift justice, that we would take care of the victims’ families and survivors and provide them closure. We thought we would save California money. We believed then a broad death penalty would act as a deterrent to crime,” Briggs explained.

“We couldn’t have been more wrong,” he said. “What we did is we created an ‘industry of death’ in California, costing tax payers $187 million a year. We have spent over $5 billion in California since 1978 doing 13 executions. That’s a staggering $384 million per execution.”

Briggs was shaking his head standing behind a clear plastic podium with a yellow placard in front proclaiming in black letters: “Yes on 62,” the measure on the November Ballot that would eliminate the death penalty in the Golden State.

Then he went on talking about an opposing ballot measure this fall that would actually speed up executions. Proposition 66 would set shorter time limits on the review and automatic appeals after someone receives a sentence of death in California.

“The proponents of 66 say they will bring closure, that it will act as a deterrent and it will make the death penalty work in California,” Briggs pointed out. “Trust me. I’ve been there. It won’t. Prop 66 is simply a pig with lipstick.”

A diverse coalition supporting Prop 62, the Justice that Works Act — including religious figures, legal advocates, relatives of victims, social justice leaders and long-serving exonerated prisoners — spoke at the kickoff campaign against the measure at the noontime rally.

The California Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops of the state, also announced their support of the measure that day, tying their position with the Year of Mercy.

“All life is sacred — innocent or flawed — just as Jesus Christ taught us and demonstrated repeatedly throughout his ministry,” the California bishops said in a statement. “Our support to end the use of the death penalty is also rooted in our unshakeable resolve to accompany and support all victims of crime. They suffer the very painful consequences of criminal acts. With the violent loss of a loved one, a sword has pierced their heart. Their enduring anguish is not addressed by the state-sanctioned perpetuation of the culture of death.”

Beth Webb, sister of one of eight murdered victims at a Seal Beach hair salon on Oct. 12, 2011, gave witness to that. She spoke passionately about the still ongoing case because of “bungled police work” involving informants. “But I’m here to say that neither me or my mother, who was severely wounded, would find closure in the death of another human being,” she said. “That makes us like him [the killer] for all of us to want his blood. To say that we’ll be satisfied only at his death brings us down to his level. We are better than him. We are better than that.”

Gary Tyler served more than 41 years in Louisiana State Prison for a murder for which he was finally exonerated. Now he was supporting California’s Prop 62 for a couple reasons. “The system is unfair,” he said. “And even though you have people who are guilty of such horrible crimes, but, honestly speaking, do they deserve death?”

Dolores Huerta, the labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, said race often plays a role in who receives a death sentence. She pointed out how two people committing the same horrendous capital offenses will probably not get the same sentence. Time and time again, research had shown the person of color will wind up being executed.

“Also, we cannot bring back a life by taking another life. And state executions do not really prevent homicides in the future. So I think we have this wonderful moment right now in the November ballot where we can actually end the death penalty in California,” stressed Huerta. 

“Our state has always been a pioneer of justice,” she noted. “We need to bring that justice back. ¡Si Se Puede! We can do it!”

Former secretary of labor, and current Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda Solis agreed. “I think what’s really important is that the county is taking a very progressive role in terms of restorative justice and making things that were wrong right,” she said. “And this is one step in that direction. We can lead the way. When Los Angeles County and the State of California lead, the country follows.”

The executive director of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) believed that in opposing the death penalty, compassion should be the major factor. Rabbi Jonathan Klein dared those present to find a single faith community or denomination that “believes we should be killing people.”

“The question of compassion is at the heart of our traditions,” he said. “But so is the concept of justice. And we know that all of our religious traditions are pointed in the same directions, and that is to move away from the death penalty. To move away from a state that is driven with executions, with killings, with violence at its core.”

After the press conference, longtime social justice activist Father Chris Ponnet told Angelus News he was optimistic Prop 62 would have the support of voters and pass into law this time. He said Catholics to End the Death Penalty had spent a lot of time educating Latinos — especially men — about the U.S. bishops’ and Pope Francis’s strong support.

“The movement internationally in support of the Holy Father’s opposition to the death penalty has really continued the theological position that says we can’t support it morally, it doesn’t help the victims, all those kinds of arguments,” he said.

Then he took a more personal perspective: “To me, it comes down to Jesus was executed, and I opposed his execution. And then it becomes practical and pastoral when some of us have tried to accompany victims’ families after a tragedy. And then there’s all the other arguments that come into play: race, money, possible innocents.

“All these other arguments are good, and sometimes I think prove helpful. But my position is moral and biblical. And the rabbi today mentioned that. But there are some evangelical churches that say they find justification in the Bible for it. And I would disagree with their interpretation in Scriptures.”

After some thought, the pastor of St. Camillus Church observed, “But, empirically, 200 years later we can also say the death penalty doesn’t work. It doesn’t resolve anything. It doesn’t bring closure.”

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