By Mary Novak, J.D., MAPS
Deep gratitude only begins to convey my feelings for all who worked to get on the November ballot the SAFE California initiative (The Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act).
Based on what we have learned over the years, the time is now for the SAFE California initiative to pass and for us to say “no” to the death penalty; and, the time is now for us to be more fully human in how we engage some of the most challenging and ugliest sides of our shared humanity.
Soon after joining a San Francisco law firm as a first year associate almost 25 years ago, I volunteered to work on a death penalty case the firm had taken years prior pro bono for the capital appeal process. At the time, I was not a practicing Catholic, but my clarity about the death penalty was so deeply rooted in my faith life that it compelled my action despite my separation from the Church. As a member of the team, I joined the attorneys in investigating the case and preparing the claims for the federal habeas corpus filing as we waited for the California Supreme Court’s ruling on direct appeal. When the ruling came back affirming the conviction and death sentence in the midst of our investigation – and the trial court set the execution date soon after – the gravity of what we had all said “yes” to deepened. We individually and collectively struggled with what we thought was our clarity on the death penalty while at the same time pulling many all-nighters to make the habeas filing to begin the long trek through the federal system. After almost two decades in both state or federal court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court resulting in a retrial of the case.
Those years with that case, which included numerous trips to San Quentin, taught me much about the death penalty: the cases are prohibitively expensive to litigate; housing death row inmates is significantly more expensive than general prison housing; it does not deter crime; it is imposed at times on the innocent; and, race, economics and geography are too often the determining factor in who ends up on death row. All of this and more was confirmed in 2008 in the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California.
More compelling for me today is the human side, the side our team experienced constantly as we were plunged into the sheer tragedies on all sides of the case, which for us even included the jurors. What we knew intuitively then as we interviewed witness after witness, year after year, was that this legal process would not lead to healing no matter the result at the case’s end. What I have since learned through my continual study of the death penalty as well as my restorative justice and chaplaincy work, is that our litigation process most likely resulted in further trauma to those involved as well as their families. In other words, the death penalty justice process did not invite or engender healing; rather, it may have caused further harm. Victims’ families have increasingly confirmed this in the intervening years.
For all the pragmatic and systemic reasons set out in the California Commission Report, it is time to pass the SAFE California initiative; we know better now and it simply makes good sense to act on that knowledge base. With its passage, I pray that the work will continue with engaging more deeply in restorative justice, the best practices of which are becoming increasingly well established even in the most heinous of crimes.
The SAFE California initiative is such an important step. Thank you to all who have come together to create the conditions to make this happen; your work on all of our behalf helps us to collectively atone for the harm we have done along the way in the interest of justice.
Mary Novak has been a conflict worker for 25 years; she has served as an attorney, educator, organizer, peacebuilder, spiritual director and chaplain. She returned earlier this year from Kenya where she was researching and writing her final master’s project for the Washington Theological Union on Catholic peacebuilding. Mary currently works for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and, in July, she will also serve as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.