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Prop 34: Ex-San Quentin Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford Backs California Measure to End Death Penalty

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The former warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford, joins us to discuss why she has come out in favor of Proposition 34, a ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty in California. Home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s death row population and in a state coping with budget crisis, independent analysts estimate that getting rid of the death penalty could save California taxpayers $130 million annually. The latest polls show a narrow margin of Californians oppose Prop 34 and that significant percentages are still undecided. Since leaving San Quentin — where she oversaw four executions, despite being personally opposed — Woodford now serves as executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, which educates the public about alternatives to the death penalty. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, part of our 100-city tour. Yes, we are broadcasting here from Stanford University.

With the November election less than two weeks away, we begin today’s show with a look at a ballot initiative that will let voters decide whether to abolish the death penalty here in California, home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s death row population. It’s called Proposition 34, or the SAFE California Initiative, which stands for “Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement.” Under it, prisoners already on death row would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As California faces a budget crisis, independent analysts estimate that getting rid of the death penalty could save $130 million annually. Supporters of the measure note some of the money would be used to resolve outstanding rape and murder cases. Others emphasize the moral dilemma posed by the death penalty, like in this TV ad narrated by Martin Sheen.

MARTIN SHEEN: Freedom, it’s such an essential part of our lives, it’s hard to imagine it being taken away without just cause. But it can be, and it has been. Franky Carrillo was wrongly convicted of murder. It took 20 years to prove he was innocent.

FRANKY CARRILLO: With the death penalty, we always risk executing an innocent person. Let’s replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, so we’d never make a fatal mistake.

MARTIN SHEEN: Vote yes on 34. It’s justice that works for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, many opponents of Prop 34 argue people who commit murder deserve to be executed. This competing TV ad features Mary Lou Canady, whose daughter Linda Ann was brutally raped, murdered, dumped in a drainage ditch in 1985. Linda’s killers remain locked up at San Quentin.

MARY LOU CANADY: They’re sitting now in San Quentin—three meals a day, healthcare. They have television. They have, I think, internet access. Why should someone who had committed such a horrific crime be able to—to live? There’s just—there’s no good reason. I think, really, you have forfeited your right to live. System can be fixed. It’s a—it’s a political football. And I truly believe it can be fixed. There’s no reason why it can’t be fixed. I think people aren’t fully aware of the horrific crimes that those people that are sitting on death row have committed.

AMY GOODMAN: Polls show a narrow margin of Californians oppose Prop 34 and that significant percentages are still undecided.

For more, we go to San Francisco, where we’re joined by one of the measure’s leading supporters: Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she oversaw four executions. She says she did her job but didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Warden Woodford has also served as the undersecretary and director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She is currently executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, which educates the public about alternatives to the death penalty.

Jeanne Woodford, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out exactly what this ballot initiative would do?

JEANNE WOODFORD: The Proposition 34 does three simple things. It takes the existing law and crosses out death penalty and leaves life without possibility of parole as the harshest punishment in California. It sets aside $100 million in total to be spent over three-and-a-half years for the sole purpose of solving the 46 percent of homicides and the 56 percent of reported rapes that go unsolved each year on average in the state of California. And finally, it requires that all inmates serving life without possibility of parole work and pay restitution into the Victims Compensation Fund. Proposition 34 is truly a public safety measure that allows California to utilize its very scarce criminal justice dollars on what really works, and solving crime really is what works to prevent further victimization in our state.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the general fund and the Victim Compensation Fund?

JEANNE WOODFORD: So the Victim Compensation Fund is a fund that’s set aside to assist victims all across California. And so, by requiring that inmates who are serving life without possibility of parole work and pay restitution, that means that 55 percent of their earnings would go into the Victims Compensation Fund to help victims throughout California. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you—

JEANNE WOODFORD: —in terms of the general fund—

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead.

JEANNE WOODFORD: In terms of the general fund, by replacing the death penalty, the nonpartisan Legislative analyst’s office here in California has determined that the state will save at least $130 million each year by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how this would impact victims’ families, Jeanne Woodford?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, victims’ families have all points of view on this issue. We have over 724 victim family members who support Death Penalty Focus and Proposition 34. And many of these individuals initially asked for the death penalty against the person who killed their loved one, but came to realize that the death penalty was a burden on them. The years of appeals; the fact that California has 727 people on death row and has carried out 13 executions; the fact that more inmates have died by natural causes, a small number by suicide—in fact, 84; the fact that almost a hundred have had their sentences overturned, and they ended up with life in prison without possibility of parole after years of appeals—that’s such a burden on these family members.

And then, other victims lost a loved one to homicide. They’re a part of the 46 percent of homicides that go unsolved, and they don’t know who committed that murder. And they would like to see our resources spent on solving those crimes instead of spending it on a handful of inmates who are going to die in prison anyway. And that’s why this proposition is so important to victims’ family members.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Mary Stickle’s son Jason, who was killed in 1992 by Eric Houston. Houston was sentenced to death in ’93. I want to play an excerpt of her comments about Prop 34 from a video produced by opponents of the measure.

MARY STICKLE: The state trusted these jurors enough to be on a jury, to vote within themselves that this guy should be on death row, without a shadow of a doubt. But yet, they’re not willing to uphold that? What is that saying to anybody? It’s OK, we go out and kill somebody, but, oh, well, we’re going to get thrown in general population, life without possibility of parole.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeanne Woodford, your response?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, life without possibility of parole is a very harsh sentence. In fact, it holds offenders more accountable. Inmates on death row have a single cell. They’re isolated from the general population. And that means that staff delivers services to them, or the inmate is taken to the services. It takes an incredible amount of staff.

And then, in addition to that, we really don’t have a death penalty in this state. In fact, the current California Supreme Court justice, chief justice, has called the death penalty broken beyond repair, as did the former justice. It simply doesn’t work. And my heart goes out to these family members who think that when someone is given the death penalty that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Again, since 1978, we’ve had 13 executions. This is just a—an unbelievable process to put family members through.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, some California prisoners oppose Prop 34. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty sent a questionnaire in to over 200 prisoners at San Quentin, where you were the warden, seeking their thoughts about this measure known as the SAFE Act. This is part of prisoner Darrell Lomax’s response. He said, quote, “Woodford aspires to sell to the California voter a dream of ending the death penalty and saving our cash-strapped government money, when in fact she really wants to redirect the money saved from denying prisoners the right to appeal their sentence and conviction into law enforcement agencies. These agencies have a proven track record of injustice and will only further sweep all the dirt and corruption of this police state under the rug,” unquote. Your response, Warden Woodford?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, anybody convicted of a felony in California is entitled to one appeal at taxpayer expense, so it doesn’t end appeals for inmates. And, in fact, I do want to see more police on the streets, because we know that’s what keeps us safer. I also want to see rape kits around this state being processed so that we can solve these crimes. I want to see improvements in our crime labs so that we don’t have 46 percent of homicides going unsolved. We need to bring justice that works for all Californians, and that’s what Proposition 34 does.

AMY GOODMAN: Warden Woodford, you presided over four executions at San Quentin. Can you describe them and your feelings today?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, I think I can sum it up by saying that at the end of every execution, someone on my staff would look at me and say, “Is the world safer tonight because of what we did?” And we knew. We didn’t answer the question, because we knew the answer was no. The death penalty does not deter crime. The death penalty is costly. You—what we have in California is, we’ve had over 900 people sentenced to death with 727 people remaining on death row. It does nothing to improve public safety or to improve the lives of Californians.

And so, as a result of my experience, mine—I started at San Quentin when there was only six inmates on death row, and watching that death row grow to where it is today and knowing how expensive it is and how it does nothing to improve the lives of Californians, that is why I’m a proponent of Proposition 34.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeanne Woodford, you presided over the execution of Robert Massie in 2001 while you were the warden at San Quentin. He was first sentenced to death for the 1965 murder of a mother of two. In '72, the Supreme Court suspended executions. His sentence was changed to one that would allow parole. Months after he was released in ’78, he killed again and was returned to death row. You've wrote in an L.A. Times editorial that, quote, “For supporters of the death penalty, Massie is a poster child. Yet for me, he stands out among the executions I presided over as the strongest example of how empty and futile the act of execution is.” Can you talk about the night he was executed?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, I think that, you know, of the four executions, Massie was an individual who decided to stop his appeals. And so, for Mr. Massie, he decided it was time for him to die, and so it was really very much like helping someone commit suicide. And so, that’s why it was such a difficult execution for me personally. I was raised a Catholic. And, you know, knowing that on behalf of the citizens of the state of California, that what we were really doing was helping this person commit suicide was just a very difficult experience for myself, and I think for others, as well. And, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: You also—

JEANNE WOODFORD: I also want to point out that the reason that he was released when the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in the state is that we did not have a punishment called life without possibility of parole. And today we do have that punishment. And that punishment means that you will not get out of prison, that you will die in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: You also joined with a number of prison wardens across the country in calling for a stop to the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who was executed September 21st, 2011, just over a year ago in Jackson, Georgia, at the death row prison there. He maintained his innocence to the end. Why did you join in that call?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Well, I joined in that call because I really don’t know whether Troy Davis was innocent, and I certainly don’t know whether he was guilty. There was simply too much doubt. And the wardens, as you mentioned, including the former commissioner of Georgia, signed the letter asking the state of Georgia to stop that execution, noting that—that they were asking civil servants to carry out an execution on a person when there was so much doubt about his guilt or innocence, and they would have to live with that for the rest of their lives. I think that is far too much to ask of public servants. And that’s why the six of us signed that letter.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the prison wardens who were supporting Prop 34, this proposition to abolish the death penalty in California?

JEANNE WOODFORD: Yes, we have eight wardens who have signed a letter in support of Proposition 34, and those are wardens who have been involved in executions across this country. And we signed in support of Proposition 34 because we know how wasteful the death penalty is, and we know that we have a punishment that works: life in prison without possibility of parole. And by having that punishment, life in prison without possibility of parole, you’re not asking public servants to be involved in an execution and risk executing an innocent person, which we know has happened across this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Don Heller wrote California’s death penalty law in 1978. He now says he made a huge mistake and never anticipated the costs of the death penalty. This is an excerpt of a video produced by supporters of Prop 34.

DONALD HELLER: When I wrote—wrote the initiative, I was never given any guidance by anyone as to the cost of carrying out the death penalty, something that I actually didn’t even think about, because my objective was to write a constitutionally valid statutory enactment, and I had no input into the cost of prosecuting capital cases. It takes sometimes 25 years to execute someone in California. It takes six years to get a court-appointed lawyer to represent a defendant on death row.

AMY GOODMAN: Warden Jeanne Woodford, your final comment?

JEANNE WOODFORD: My final comment is that I ask the voters of California to vote yes on Proposition 34 because it is a public safety measure. It holds people accountable by making sure that they serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the same time, it frees up resources to do those things that actually keep us safer, solving unsolved crime.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin, the San Quentin State Prison, where she oversaw four executions. She also served as the undersecretary and director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is currently executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, which educates the public about the death penalty and its alternatives. When we return, we’ll look at another ballot initiative here in California that would overturn the three-strikes law. Stay with us.

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