By Deldelp Medina
Special to the Mercury News
As someone who lost a loved one to murder, elections in California cause me pain. The death penalty is trotted out like a show pony every election cycle.
The latest July 22 Field Poll is such a show pony, released as momentum builds for the California gubernatorial elections. "Seven in 10 voters favor capital punishment in California" screamed the headlines across the state. Steve Cooley's campaign for attorney general quickly took their cue, bragging that while "death sentences have declined nationwide, Cooley obtained 13 death verdicts last year, four more than the entire state of Texas."
The echo of familiar rhetoric is incredibly painful for those of us who have lost a loved one to murder, and whose voices are effectively shut out of the debate because we oppose the death penalty.
We heard of my aunt's violent murder watching the national evening news in Spanish. My family members called each other right away, from San Francisco to Colombia, the East Coast and beyond.
My Tía's killer was her own son -- my cousin. He was in the midst of a psychotic break. We never got the sympathetic call from the police we expected. Instead, we got a low blow from the district attorney. He wanted the death penalty.
We didn't have the $100,000 it would take to get a private defense attorney, so we gave what we had. Some planned the funeral. Others gave their English skills and education. I flew to Miami to advocate for him.
We pored over his school and medical records to reconstruct his painful past. When we met with his public defenders and realized how overworked they were, we gave our time. We became his investigators.
We banded together in our grief.
Finally, the obvious became clear to the DA and he dropped the death penalty charges. A judge ruled that my cousin was ill, that he was not fit to stand trial at all. He will probably live the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It sounds strange, but that was one of the best gifts I ever got.
Our story is unfortunately common. Mental illness and familial violence often overlap. And right now, California's justice system is not equipped to deal with either.
It's important for prosecutors and politicians alike to listen to the family members who understand the anguish and the dangers wrought by mental illness. Our vantage point is valuable.
And for many of us, the death penalty is not an answer. Yet we are suffocated by the loudest, angriest "tough on crime" voices. We deserve to be heard. Within the system and in the debate.
We know that there is a better choice: We can replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. In California, every person sentenced to life without parole has died in prison or will die in prison unless new evidence emerges to show that he or she is innocent.
Life without the possibility of parole also costs a fraction compared to the death penalty. In the next five years, California will spend $1 billion on the death penalty. Just this week, the governor took $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of a new death row housing facility that will cost $400 million to complete.
Meanwhile, the governor has proposed cutting more than $400 million a year from mental health programs at the local level. Cutting funding to treat mental illness while paying for the death penalty is simply insane.
Justice is one of those precious gifts only strangers can offer. Let's hope our elected officials will give us justice by protecting funding for mental illness programs and cutting the death penalty instead.
DELDELP MEDINA is an active member of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and lives in Berkeley. She wrote this article for this newspaper.