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Life For Justice: An Equal Exchange?

Can killing innocent people be justified? This is the question Governor Gavin Newsom was faced with when deciding what actions he should take regarding California’s death penalty. If your answer is “no”—just as his was—then it’s time to start rethinking this policy. Just last month, he put a moratorium on the death penalty in California—meaning that there will not be any executions while he is in office. Governor Newsom recognizes that California’s death penalty is a broken system that needs to be done away with. It is a system that targets specific groups of people and puts innocent lives at risk every single day.

Numerous studies have shown that race plays a huge role in the criminal justice system in both arrests and sentencing. Santa Clara University has reported that in cases where the victim was white, the defendants were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim was black, and more than four times as likely if the victim was Latino.

In his announcement of this suspension of the death penalty, Governor Newsom pointed out that approximately six out of ten people on death row in California are black or Latino. This should not be the case in a society where white people and people of color commit crimes at remarkably similar rates. As if this racial targeting is not enough of a reason to call the use of the death penalty into question, the fact that it also puts innocent lives at risk should.

A study done by the National Academy of Sciences has found that approximately 4.1 percent of people sentenced to death are innocent. This means that if California were to execute all 737 people that are currently on death row, we would risk killing 30 innocent people—30 innocent lives taken for absolutely no reason.

In 1991 Vicente Benavides was sentenced to death in California for the murder and sexual assault of a toddler—almost 26 years later he was exonerated. It was just last April when he was finally freed at the age of 68 after evidence showed the girl’s injuries were more consistent with that of a car accident. This man had 26 years of his life thrown away because society has a deep thirst for revenge. Is this revenge really worth the risk of spilling more innocent blood? If we knowingly take away an innocent life, are we any better than the murderers we are advocating to have killed?

We are at a turning point in society: California can either take Governor Newsom’s lead and support the termination of a deeply flawed system, or we can continue to support this racist practice that has undoubtedly resulted in the death of an innocent person in the name of “justice.”  Many will argue—and have argued—that we need the death penalty so the families of victims can have justice.

But it must be understood that Governor Newsom is not arguing for the guilty to be let out of prison as if nothing happened, he is just recognizing that the current system is not the proper way to serve this purpose. These families need to be able to grieve the loss of the innocent lives of their loved ones, risking more innocent life is not the way to do this. Benavides was lucky that his innocence was proven before his execution date, but how many others weren’t so lucky? California cannot keep defending a system that has deep racial biases and puts innocent lives in danger every day it is in operation.

Arianna Lopez is a junior political science major.


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