united States

Death Penalty Upheld In California Vote...

Struggle On to Abolish the Death Penalty,
Life Without Possibility of Parole and the U.S. Criminal Injustice System

By Chris Kinder

California’s Proposition 34 (“Safe CA”) went down to a narrow defeat in the 2012 elections. It would have ended the death penalty in the state. It would have done so in a very compromised way, by imposing a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole (LWOP), on all existing death-penalty inmates, and all those convicted in the future of crimes which would have made them eligible for the death penalty before passage of this act.

But Prop 34 would also have sent $100 million dollars, supposedly saved for the state by the elimination of the death penalty, to prosecutors and cops, so that they can solve crimes more efficiently. The whole rationale for the Proposition revolved around fighting crime, saving money for the state, and not freeing anyone from prison.

Death row inmates speak out

While its backers trumpeted how the state will “never execute an innocent person” under this act, Prop 34 proposed a living hell as a substitute. 

In a profound condemnation of the U.S. criminal justice system, death row inmates such as Kevin Cooper, Correll Thomas, and Jarvis Jay Masters, all on death row in San Quentin, denounced Prop 34 before the election. Kevin Cooper is manifestly innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, and has already exhausted all his appeals; yet he uncompromisingly exposed all this act’s nefarious provisions (“Safe California Act: No Thank You”). 

Cooper did not advise people as to how to vote. But he said, “There’s a cliché out there where you are that says, ‘As long as there’s life, there’s hope.’ Back here where I am, behind these walls, it’s in reverse: ‘As long as there’s hope, there’s life’,” referring to Prop 34’s mandated LWOP sentencing as death by another name.

A capitalist carnival of nightmares 

Prop 34 was a reformist and highly problematic mess. Besides LWOP as an “alternative” to death, 34 mandated that inmates convicted under this law can’t “sit around doing nothing,” as death row inmates allegedly do now. Under Prop 34, inmates would work in prison for the rest of their lives—“as ordered by a judge”—to compensate victims (quotes here are from the argument in favor of Prop 34, in the official California state voter guide). 

In addition, it would have robbed these inmates of automatic, state-sponsored appeals against their death sentence. While it didn’t limit habeas rights per se, it meant that there’s no state or federal habeas appeals unless you can pay for it. The legal system’s there to provide a chance at freedom, but only if you’ve got the cash—perhaps one of the cruelest of crimes in the capitalist carnival of nightmares.

Lock them up and throw away the key—and make them work all the way to their death—is the modern-day slave system that the drafters of this law want to secure forever. We must find a much better way to oppose the death penalty, one which abolishes all the other manifestations of capitalist state-sanctioned slavery and terror as well.

The mad dogs of death won with “no” on 34

All this being said, there was one very good reason to vote for Prop 34. Much respect and honor must go to the courageous death row inmates who are so abused by the criminal INjustice system as to call for a “no” vote on a proposition that would end the death penalty. Yet I think the arguments of these and others who opposed Prop 34 from the left ignored some crucial factors. The first is that the “no” vote handed a victory to the forces of reaction who want to uphold, and even speed up, state-sanctioned murder.

Despite the best efforts of the Death Penalty Focus (DPF) designers of the Proposition to recruit cops and prosecutors to support this measure—that was their core strategy—most major police and prosecutorial agencies thumbed their nose at this call, and went all out to maintain the state’s “right” to kill. A mass mailer by the Peace Officers Research Organization of California (PORAC), which claims 64,000 “public safety” members, said that Prop 34 “would let serial killers and those who murder children, peace officers and the elderly, escape justice!” As if this ridiculous frothing at the mouth wasn’t enough, PORAC was also against Proposition 36, which, with its passage, eliminated some of the more egregious aspects of California’s “three strikes” law.

These mad dogs of death were joined by: “The Big 11—California’s 11 largest police organizations;” as well as the Correctional Peace Officers Association (the prison screws), associations representing California district attorneys, peace officers, police chiefs, state sheriffs, and many local and regional police agencies and individual district attorneys and others. And lest we forget, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) also called for a “no” vote to uphold death (see The FOP is the outfit that still fumes that their 30-year vendetta/campaign to execute political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has failed.

The “giant eraser of death”

In the last weeks before the election, Prop 34 brought out the wolves of death big time. Democrat and former state governor Gray Davis said that Prop 34 would be “like a giant eraser,” which would “wipe out” the death penalty for more than 700 killers on death row in the state. Davis refused to commute the sentence of any inmate during his term, and was irreconcilable on the death penalty. Former Republican governors George Deukmajian and Pete Wilson joined Davis. Deukmajian added his comment that under Prop 34, a future governor could commute the life-without-parole sentences to add parole and thus let killers go free. (If that is so likely, why isn’t it happening to the many inmates who already languish in prison with LWOP sentences?) 

In California alone, more than 200 innocent men and women have been convicted for crimes they did not commit, according to the ACLU; six of them had been sentenced to execution. Innocents in other states, such as Troy Davis (in Georgia), and Cameron Todd Willingham (in Texas) have been executed. Right now, the death penalty in California is on hold due to the legal flap over which chemicals should be used to kill the victims of this barbarity. But with the defeat of Prop 34, innocents on death row such as Kevin Cooper, and 13 others who have already run out of appeals, could be the first victims of a new round of executions. (see Scott Graham, “If Prop 34 Fails, California Could See a Wave of Executions,” October 19, 2012, at An executed person has no appeals.

The “no” vote on 34 emboldened the dogs of death. But more than that, Prop 34’s defeat was an endorsement of the whole criminal INjustice system. Defeats such as this do not make opposition to other aspects of the system, such as LWOP or solitary confinement, any easier.

U.S. stands out as a symbol of backwardness

The defeat of Prop 34, while noted around the world, wasn’t the only blow from the U.S. for the death penalty in late 2012. While a record 110 countries voted for a (non-binding) resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty in a UN General Assembly human-rights committee on November 19th, the U.S. was among 39 countries, including Iran, India, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, to vote “no.” A victory for Prop 34 in California two weeks earlier would surely have been noted internationally, and embarrassed Obama’s U.S. (France planned to bring a death-penalty moratorium before the full General Assembly in December, and a world congress against the death penalty is planned for June 2013 in Madrid.)

And while machinations in the UN den of thieves may not mean that much, a more down-to-earth testimony came in an email to the occupy4prisoners list from Christine Thomas of the Campaign To End the Death Penalty, sent shortly after the U.S. election. In it Thomas reports from Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was attending an international conference on ballot initiatives and referendums featuring delegates from 35 countries. She says that, “More than 50 times in the last week, I’ve been asked by exasperated foreigners: how could you Californians have voted down Prop 34, the repeal of the death penalty? The question is starting to get old.” She goes on to say that Prop 34 “…appears to have been closely watched around the world,” and that people she talked to are “…convinced that no civilized society would have a death penalty.” She says she got the “third degree” on Prop 34 from both a representative of the Uruguayan government and a conservative oppositional legislator. She concludes that, “…there is real power in hearing from dozens of people, in every conceivable accent in which English can be spoken, that you’re a total idiot for living in a place that still has a death penalty.”

I’m sure Thomas would agree that people aren’t “idiots” just for living in a racist, exploitative and punishment-oriented society. But her testimony about international reaction to the defeat of Prop 34 can’t be ignored by leftists who argued to vote “no” or abstain. The same is true in California and nationally: Prop 34 was a referendum on the death penalty, for or against. It was a defeat that a “civilized” society voted to maintain the death penalty. Of course a civilized society should not be for LWOP, solitary confinement, or slavery in prison either. But take off the blinders: this is NOT what this vote was about! It was death penalty up or down, period.

Prop 34’s deep and dark background

That the designers of Prop 34 failed to recruit their sought-after targets—the cops, district attorneys, politicians and other central actors in the criminal justice system—is indicative. The system is wedded to the death penalty as one of its primary tools to control and terrorize the Black, brown, working and poor people. The Prop 34 leaders were misled by their own liberal illusions in the ability of the deeply racist capitalist system to somehow correct itself, just because it would be “cheaper” to do so. This failed strategy had its origins in a failed attempt to exclude Mumia Abu-Jamal—perhaps the best-known victim of the racist U.S. death penalty—from the anti-death penalty movement!

Key anti-death penalty activists such as the then director of Death Penalty Focus (DPF), Elizabeth Zitrin (currently the head of the “Law Enforcement Outreach Project” of the DPF), and a handful of other liberals, acting without the approval of their organizations, called for the removal of Mumia Abu-Jamal from the anti-death penalty movement. These actors had the gall to turn their backs on an anti-death penalty conference in Switzerland in 2010 when an audio address by Mumia was played! Their reason for wanting Mumia out of the movement anticipated the thinking behind Prop 34: Mumia’s presence would “alienate” the cops and prosecutors they wanted to attract to the anti-death penalty movement. (Never mind that the police, prosecutors and courts had all conspired to frame Mumia and send him to death row for a crime he didn’t commit, as they have many others, including some who have been executed.) 

The Labor Action Committee tried to expose Prop 34’s initiators

The Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal (LAC), of which I am member, initiated a petition amongst anti-death penalty groups opposing the crime of trying to “build” an anti-death penalty movement by excluding the world’s best known political prisoner and (at that time) death row inmate. The LAC, being a united front around Mumia’s defense, his innocence, and freeing Mumia, as well as opposition to the racist death penalty, did not take a specific position on Prop 34. Members have taken their own positions on this.

My difficulty in finally coming to a position on Prop 34 had much to do with its scurrilous origins and horrifying compromises. In an earlier article, I labeled Prop 34 the “LWOP initiative,” and called it “Sophie’s Choice,” meaning no choice (Socialist Viewpoint, Sept/Oct 2012). I did not advocate voting one way or the other on the initiative. This was a mistake. I later corrected this position in an earlier version of the present article, titled “Down with the Racist Death Penalty; No to LWOP!” which was distributed by email on November 5th. The conclusion is clear.

Of course it was correct to say there is no “choice” between the death penalty and the inhuman life sentences that are already in use in this country. The whole racist criminal justice system must go down, from the corrupt cops and courts, to the unfair trials and ineffective appeals, right through to the crime of execution and the solitary confinement and slavery of LWOP. But voting “no” (or abstaining) on a referendum on the death penalty did not serve this purpose. 

The fight is not over: a working class struggle to overturn the death penalty and the whole criminal justice system has yet to be organized. But a “yes” on 34 would have been a beginning, a chink in the armor of these state terrorists.

Those who voted “yes,” “no,” or abstained

While the Green Party, Peace and Freedom Party and others supported Prop 34, many left organizations remained on the sidelines, such as the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Campaign To End the Death Penalty (CEDP), which seemed to have an abstentionist position. An exception was the Spartacist League (SL) which called for a “yes” vote in “‘Tough On Crime’ Anti-Death Penalty Measure, Vote Yes on California Prop 34” (Workers Vanguard, September 29, 2012).

The historic Black newspaper, the San Francisco Bay View, came out against Prop 34, largely in response to the statements from death row inmates (see for these statements and others). And among many personal correspondents who have called for a no vote is one who said, referring to the requirement of virtual slave labor on the part of inmates, that this “is even worse than capital punishment.”

Following the election, the Trotskyist International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) explained its “no” vote in, “Proposition 34 and the Death Penalty; Why Marxists Voted No.” (see The IBT’s statement said that the organizers of Prop 34 “…pitched abolition as an opportunity to reduce state expenditures and save money for taxpayers.” It went on to enumerate objections to the Proposition, most of which have been mentioned here, such as converting death sentences to LWOP, removing automatic appeals, and requiring virtual slave labor from inmates. The article said that had it succeeded, Prop 34 “might have become a model for similar campaigns in other states,” neglecting to mention that other states which have already abolished the death penalty used similar measures (requiring LWOP as a substitute for execution). 

It seems more likely that had it succeeded, Prop 34 would have been a set-back for death-penalty proponents nationally, because at 725 inmates, California’s death row is the largest in the country; and it would have made opposition to the other atrocities of this system just a little bit easier. But let’s look at some of the reasons for voting no.

LWOP: Life without the possibility of parole is already the standard in the U.S. for murder convictions when the jury can’t or won’t apply the death penalty. Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is on LWOP after the state of Pennsylvania was forced to throw in the towel on its long fight to kill him for a crime he didn’t commit. Following his eventual release from death row into general population, Mumia fought the imposition of this new sentence just as hard as he has always fought his false conviction and sentence of death. Assuming they could overturn their death sentences, many in California would face the same LWOP “alternative” sentence in the wake of 34’s defeat as they would if the Proposition had passed.

Appeal rights

While Prop 34 would have removed automatic appeals that today’s death row inmates have, such appeals are problematic at best. Death row inmates get one direct appeal to state appellate courts and Supreme Court, and it can take ten years from conviction to get there. The death sentence has been upheld in more than 90 percent of cases. Bias of the courts, and inadequacy of court-appointed attorneys, is almost always an issue.

Habeas corpus

The right of habeas corpus is as old as English common law. It consists of a demand to the state as to “why are you holding this person?” It should be immediate and unlimited, since any illegitimate incarceration of a person is a violation of his or her rights. Death row inmates get one state habeas petition automatically. Yet in state habeas petitions, inmates can wait eight to ten years just for the appointment of counsel. And since 1978, new evidentiary hearings have been granted in just 31 of 689 appeals filed.

Federal habeas

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a Republican anti-crime bill signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton, severely restricted habeas by requiring federal courts to defer to states on, for instance, evidence that was not part of the state court record. Since 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted federal review of capital cases, because of this law. Thus, defendants in many cases are blocked from demanding answers from corrupt state courts as to why they are being held. Furthermore, death row prisoners can only file a federal habeas petition after all state appeals have been resolved. Of the 970 people condemned to death in California since 1978, only 54 have obtained new trials from such appeals; another 32 death row prisoners died while awaiting a decision. (Thanks to Workers Vanguard No. 1009, September 28, 2012, for statistics cited here.) 

The real choice: reform or revolution

Politics in the U.S. today are dominated by the ruling bourgeoisie. Decades upon decades of defeats, at the hands of the ruling class with the collaboration of the Stalinists, and reformist and social-democratic and trade-union misleaders, have turned the modern world into a capitalist wet-dream, in which differing factions within the ruling class get to make all the decisions, without the bother of serious working-class opposition. Formerly working-class mass parties now represent liberal bourgeois or petty-bourgeois interests. Defeatist policies and thinking pervade the labor movement, and virtually nowhere is a revolutionary perspective presented, except by a handful of very small groups who trace their roots back to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The bottom line here is that we don’t want to rely on the existing racist, exploitative system: we don’t want this system to decide anything. We need to deal with replacing the entire capitalist criminal justice system with one, which is fair, humane, does not execute anyone, and respects the rights of all. This should include fair and just trials, so that second ones aren’t needed; or if they are, new evidence is considered without time limit, question or delay. This can only be accomplished by something that’s not been much in evidence of late, and that’s a class-struggle aimed at overthrowing capitalism, and replacing it with workers rule.

Prop 34, despite the “Sophie’s Choice” it presented, would have abolished the death penalty in California. And upholding the death penalty, by voting this proposition down, was not exactly rejecting the choice, was it? The fight must be ramped up both to destroy the death penalty, and the rest of the slaveocracy-derived criminal justice system. Let’s work to rebuild a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist system, including a revolutionary party, with a program that can re-make society and the planet in the interests of all working people.

—December 18, 2012