PLEASANT HILL -- A retired prison warden, a former prosecutor and a man whose 7-year-old sister was murdered may seem unlikely death penalty foes, but they are urging voters to support a November ballot measure that would abolish capital punishment in California.
Those opponents -- Jeanne Woodford, who carried out four executions during her tenure as warden of San Quentin State Prison; Darryl Stallworth, who tried a death penalty case while working in the Alameda County district attorneys office; and Saint Mary's politics professor Ronald Ahnen -- gathered at a forum in Pleasant Hill Tuesday to discuss Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center, Diocese of Oakland and Christ the King church in Pleasant Hill co-sponsored the forum.
If voters approve Prop. 34, the 727 inmates on death row at San Quentin and the Central California Women's Facility at Chowchilla, would have their sentences immediately commuted to life without parole. A Field Poll released Tuesday showed likely voters are split on Prop. 34 -- 42 percent support the initiative, 45 percent are opposed and 13 percent are undecided.
Ahnen was 8 years old in 1973 when his sister Rose Marie was abducted on her way to school in Wisconsin and murdered. Ahnen, who described Rose Marie as his best friend, said a kid at school tried to comfort him by saying he would shoot the killer between the eyes. The other children cheered, but Ahnen didn't.
"The only thought that went through my mind was, my family's life was just ripped apart by violence and this is what you want to talk to me about?"
Although Wisconsin doesn't have the death penalty, Ahnen dismissed the notion that executing his sister's killer would provide closure. Although it's been 39 years since she died, Ahnen said he still misses Rose Marie and cries for her at least once a year.
In support of Prop. 34, Ahnen argued that life imprisonment without parole would keep society safer because it frees up money for crime prevention programs and criminal investigations. He believes the death penalty legitimizes killing and is emotionally grueling for victims' families and law enforcement personnel. Finally, he said capital punishment is an obstacle to creating a society free of violence, hatred and fear.
"The death penalty is about revenge, it's about anger," said Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, an Oakland human rights and prison reform advocacy group.
Supporters say repealing the death penalty will save money by reducing the costs of trials, appeals and housing prisoners. Under California law, death penalty verdicts automatically are appealed to the state Supreme Court. Condemned prisoners are entitled to state-paid legal counsel for appeals in state and federal court. For the average prisoner, that process drags on for 25 years. The state's legislative analyst estimates that repealing the death penalty will save state and local governments about $100 million annually for the first few years, and about $130 million per year thereafter. The measure also earmarks $100 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies.
Woodford said Californians should ask these key questions about the death penalty -- does it make us safer, is it cost-effective and is it fair and equitable? She believes the answer to all three is no.
"The death penalty, to me, is the most failed and broken public policy we have in this state when it comes to criminal justice," said Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based group working to abolish capital punishment across the country.
Opponents of Prop. 34 believe the prisoners on death row should remain there and the death penalty should continue to be an option for the state's worst offenders, such as serial killers and child murderers.
"There are simply crimes which are so outside the bounds of a civilized society that the perpetrator forfeits his right to live," said attorney McGregor Scott, co-chair of the No on 34 campaign. Also, the long-term cost of housing and providing medical care for prisoners sentenced to life without parole will exceed any savings derived from ending capital punishment, he contends.
Several forum attendees said they were most impressed by Stallworth's journey from accepting to opposing capital punishment after trying a death penalty case. "It doesn't work, it doesn't do what it says it does, it doesn't make us any safer," Stallworth said.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.