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Executing Justice

Based on a True Story


DEATH PENALTY: I just finished John Grisham’s novel The Confession, a compelling story of twisted justice and capital punishment.

Anyone reading it is likely to entertain serious doubts about the death penalty. Grisham offers a suspenseful scenario that moves painfully, step by step, through the railroading of a young boy.

A black youth is falsely accused of killing a white cheerleader in a small town in Texas, a state not known for its hesitancy to use a rope or other mechanisms of execution, the current being “the needle” as a “humane” method.

Barney Brantingham

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Texas leads the field in number of executions, with 466, far ahead of No. 2, Virginia, with 108. California ranks 16th, with 13 executions, none so far this year.

But the Golden State does lead the pack with 713 inmates waiting on death row, 10 sentenced by Santa Barbara County courts. The scales of justice could yet work in their favor: In recent years, an annual average of about seven falsely convicted inmates around the U.S. have been exonerated.

According to folklore, it’s cheaper to kill the killers than keep them locked up for life. Not so, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) of Washington, D.C.

If the past is any measure, just putting them there and killing them costs at least an estimated $250,000 each, according to the center. And that’s low, from what I hear.

That would amount to $2,500,000 for Santa Barbara County’s 10. Of these, Malcolm Robbins has been on San Quentin’s death row the longest, since 1983. He observed Father’s Day by kidnapping a Goleta boy and molesting and killing him. Then there’s the guy who killed a mother of five during a robbery in Lompoc. Another killed a woman on the steps of a Santa Barbara church. Another murdered his girlfriend, took her belongings, and stuffed her body into a barrel. Horrific crimes, all.

Death row costs California taxpayers $114 million a year over and beyond the cost of just keeping them locked up for life, the DPIC said. Death penalty backers argue that it’s worth any amount of money to punish the bastards and deter other would-be murderers. But a poll of present and former presidents of criminologist groups found that 88 percent rejected the notion of deterrence.

The risk of having noxious chemicals injected in his veins didn’t seem to give Jesse James Hollywood second thoughts while ordering his posse of brainless buddies to murder 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz and bury him in the hills above Santa Barbara in 2000. Hollywood was reportedly having dinner in L.A. with a girlfriend at the time, apparently more concerned about his steak than the fates of not only Markowitz but also his own pals. Luckily for Hollywood, this is California, not Texas, so he got life in prison. But his stupid stooge, Ryan Hoyt, who pumped nine bullets into Markowitz with Hollywood’s TEC-9 machine pistol and at trial claimed selective amnesia about the killing, is on death row. Hollywood’s other pals avoided the death penalty.

Sixteen states have abolished capital punishment, including (surprise) my homeland of Illinois. I doubt if most murderers give much thought to the consequences, but if they did, they might want to do the deed somewhere outside the South. That’s where 80 percent of executions take place. A study in California found that people who killed whites were three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks, and four times more likely than those who killed Latinos.

The accounts of mangled jurisprudence in Grisham’s novel could have been torn from the pages of countless real cases. At least one surely was: As attorneys frantically deliver evidence that could save the youth’s life, the door to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is shut in their faces at the strict 5 p.m. as the judge, well aware of the potential appeal, heads off for a tennis date.

Santa Barbara attorney Robert Landheer told me of a true-life 2007 case where Grisham likely got the idea: Although attorneys had asked that the court remain open for a last-minute appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ head judge ordered it closed on the dot at 5 p.m. The inmate was executed a few hours later, an appeal that could have saved his life unheard.

Landheer, who finds the death penalty “arbitrary and capricious,” cited the Death Penalty Focus group’s “Ten Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty”: Wrongful executions of innocent people. The high costs involved. Prolonged suffering for families of victims. So far, 139 nations, including most Western democracies, have abandoned the death penalty. Inadequate legal representation for defendants. No demonstration that it deters. “Although isolated passages of religious scripture have been quoted in support of the death penalty, almost all religious groups in the U.S. regard executions as immoral.” Race of the victim and of the defendant are major factors in determining the sentence. Life in prison without possibility of parole is an alternative.

In view of the costs involved, you’d think the budget-cutters would home in on the issue.

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