On August 7, 2016, a 69-year-old white California man beat his estranged wife to death with a hammer.
Though he hit her in the head over twenty times, prosecutors removed an allegation from their complaint that would have characterized John Tercheria's actions as “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved.” In turn, he was spared the death penalty.
Instead, Tercheria, who lived in Northern California's Blackhawk neighborhood with his wife Linda, has been sentenced to seventeen years and four months in prison, with a potential twenty percent sentence reduction for good behavior.
By eliminating the possibility of the death penalty in Tercheria’s case, the prosecutor has aided in sculpting the ways in which both the jury and the public perceive his actions.
Cases such as Tercheria’s demonstrate that prosecutors are not obligated to impose the death penalty on the accused, though the nature of one's crime may be particularly heinous (and even involve torture).
Capital punishment is symptomatic of the retributive nature of the United States prison system that can be summed up, generally, by the philosophy: “a life for a life, an eye for an eye.” Nonetheless, even in our purportedly civilized society, effective challenges to the death penalty are astoundingly rare.
Of course, in March 2019, California joined twenty states and Washington, D.C., when Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a moratorium on the state's death penalty (which can be overturned by the state's next governor).
Unfortunately, eliminating capital punishment is only incremental progress. Moreover, the likelihood of the rest of the U.S. following suit anytime soon is slim. Still, who knows what sort of material benefits might manifest if our country's legal system no longer relied on such starkly retributive motives?
Of paramount importance when considering our punitive legal system is its racial breakdown. Take, for example, California’s death row population. Though the second largest racial group is white, the California Department of Corrections website shows that the largest racial population on the state’s death row is currently Black.
Considering California’s population is only 6.5% Black and 37.6% non-Hispanic white, this reality is seriously alarming. Even better is the overall racial breakdown of California’s male-designated prisons as of 2013: 29.5% Black and 22.5% white.
Though your garden-variety racist will do their damndest to convince you that our prisons are packed to the gills with Black and brown people because Black and brown people do bad things (i.e., because they're inherently bad; they should be locked up!), not so fast! There may, in fact, be more to the story.
Take, for example, the case of Darnell Washington, who is Black. Washington is currently sitting on death row for the murder of a woman in Northern California. The facts of Washington’s case are inarguably heinous. It is necessary that we have effective means by which to address such acts of brutality.
Now take the jury on Washington’s case, who was heard singing “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash as they waited for the attorneys on the case to sort out a legal issue.
Regardless of the jurors’ experiences of the trial, their collectively jubilant display demonstrated a surreal (and disturbing) indifference toward human mortality—one that starkly contrasts the conceptual grounds on which Tercheria was allegedly spared the death penalty. (According to Tercheria’s attorney, the District Attorney must have realized that “all killing is heinous.” Therefore, his murder case did not warrant the death penalty any more than the next).
After California's passage of Prop 66 in November 2016, attorneys without capital experience were forced to take on capital cases so as to expedite the appellate process, thus jeopardizing the judicial outcome for capital defendants.
This proposition, of course, adversely affected marginalized folks: people who belong to minority groups or are affected by poverty are disproportionately sentenced to death.
Moreover, innocent people are too often put to death by the U.S. legal system. In fact, a current study estimates that approximately 4% of the people currently sitting on death row in the United States are innocent. This number is likely an underestimation.
The stakes are high for those against whom prosecutors wield charges. And prosecutors are allegedly responsible for seeing that justice is done by presenting reasonable charges against the accused, and, therefore, reasonable outcomes when wrongs have been committed. They wield considerable influence over our society, shaping our collective opinion of the accused based on the charges they levy against them.
Of course, discussed above are only two cases with potential for capital punishment in California. I don't doubt one could pull several cases from elsewhere in the U.S. that just as effectively illustrate an argument that precisely counters mine. However, I'd encourage that person to read on, and to reflect on the statistics above.
When it comes to addressing the sorts of ills our legal system is meant to prevent and remedy, how effective is our prison system, really? Where is the evidence of this effectiveness? In the increase in the people housed within our prisons? In the billions of dollars spent on keeping them locked up? On locking them repeatedly?
Are we so prone to passively swallowing whatever ideological messages we are fed that we can't independently conceive of a more humane, sustainable future? When will it be time for a change? Maybe it’s time more of us start talking about one.
This post was originally published on August 17, 2017. It has since been edited.