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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Commentary: Death Penalty Case Weighs on Our System

In Friday's Sacramento Bee is a story about Judge Stephen Mock ordering the death in the killing of a California Highway Patrol Officer in 2005. Judge Mock ordered the death of one of the convicted killers of the officer, a man who is just 22 years old.

I have little sympathy for a person who would kill an officer of the law or frankly anyone else.

And yet, I have long been against the death penalty. I do not believe the state has the right to end another's life. I also do not believe there is a way to apply it fairly across the board and as a result people who lack the means to afford good legal representation systematically receive the death penalty in far higher numbers for similar crimes.

I have barely covered this case but it weighs more heavily on me than most. Perhaps that is because at two separate points in time I was asked to intervene on behalf of the defendant.

The first time occurred over a year and a half ago when the defense was trying to get Judge Mock disqualified.

At the time, Judge Mock was the lead Superior Court Judge in Yolo County. He had the responsibility of assigning cases to judges. He no longer is in that position, it is a position held by Judge Dave Rosenberg.

At the same time, his wife was Chief Deputy District Attorney. It was her job to assign cases to prosecutors.

The Vanguard had covered this issue prior to the December 2006 article and in fact, the relationship between Judge Mock and Ann Hurd seemed problematic in some other cases I was aware.

It would be reported:
"An out-of-county judge, specially appointed to hear the controversy, has already decided in favor of Mock. That judge ruled that though it was a "close call," Mock can remain impartial."
A year and a half later, Judge Mock is signing the order to send an individual to death row. Maybe he was completely fair in the trial, I was not there. The appearance of a conflict here is important though. The people prosecuting this case are the same people that are colleagues and underlings of Judge Mock's wife.

The fact that I provided the defense attorneys with information and witnesses to Judge Mock gives me some connection to this case.

I am a strong believer in transparency in government. I think the fact that Steve Mock is judge in this county means that his wife should not be the chief deputy DA in this county. That is no slam against Ann Hurd, I have seen her in action and she is very good at what she does. But I think for the sake of both of their credibility there needs to be some distance.

Ironically, my indirect involvement in this case did not end there however. I had a second opportunity to intervene in this case a few weeks ago. Apparently Rick Gore was one of the investigators into the case and every case he was involved in is now in some sort of question. In this case, I was unable to help and some time in the future a man will die.

We have a system where the difference between life and death is based on very narrow distinctions and findings of fact. It is based on the ability of lawyers to provide good defense. It is based on the ability of the defendants to pay for these lawyers to provide good defense. It is based on a whole host of facts and matters that should not matter.

The innocence project has freed many people who were wrongly convicted in courts of law. Some of that is based on newly available technology such as DNA testing. But at its core, the reason that innocent people are convicted of crimes is that the justice system is based on the work of human beings and human beings make errors. Not only do they make errors that lead to them committing crimes but they make errors in their attempts to determine who did what and what the appropriate punishment should be for a given crime.

A person who is freed after serving 17 years cannot recoup their 17 years in prison. But at least they can be freed to start a new life, such as it is. You cannot bring back the dead. Perhaps it would be better if we did not have to try.

I have seen very little evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to future crimes committed by other individuals. I have seen very little evidence that the death penalty works better than life without parole. It would sure make these matters just a little easier.

In the meantime, I will continue to ponder how I played a very small part in a case, that I have no direct knowledge of nor do I know any of the parties.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting