Death Penalty Judge: 'Let's Stop The Charade'

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"A death sentence in California rarely leads to an execution," retired Superior Court Judge Donald McCartin wrote in his Los Angeles Times op-ed, "Second Thoughts of a 'Hanging Judge.'" Host Scott Simon talks with McCartin, known as "the hanging judge of Orange County" when he sat on the Superior Court there.


Judge Donald A. McCartin was known as the hanging judge of Orange County when he sat on the Superior Court there, from 1978 to 1993. He was proud of the nickname, and sentenced 10 men convicted of murder to die for their crimes. But now, the judge has called on Governor Jerry Brown to commute the sentences of the more than 700 men and women on death row in California - not because he considers the death penalty cruel punishment for those whove committed murder, but cruel for the families of those theyve killed.

Judge McCartin, who is now retired, wrote about his opinion recently in the Los Angeles Times. He joins us from his home in Bass Lake, California.

Judge McCartin, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DONALD MCCARTIN (Author, "Second Thoughts of a 'Hanging Judge'"): Surely.

SIMON: And may I ask, of the 10 men you sentenced to death, how many were executed?

Mr. MCCARTIN: Zero. The 10 were guilty of horrifying crimes - by their peers - and in the jurors' view as well as mine, they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, one has died of natural causes in prison. None has been executed.

SIMON: I mean, I have read up on one of your cases, which is quite famous. This is Rodney James Alcala.

Mr. MCCARTIN: Yes, sir.

SIMON: And he was convicted of kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl, Robin Samsoe - let's not forget her name - in 1979.

Mr. MCCARTIN: Correct.

SIMON: And I guess, just last year, he was sentenced for killing four other young women, too. According to what weve read, Mr. Alcala has had 30 appeals in 32 years.

Mr. MCCARTIN: Correct.

SIMON: But I mean, thats - the system does that to try and make certain that they don't execute an innocent man, doesn't it?

Mr. MCCARTIN: Well, that is the fallacy of the argument, but I assume thats correct. But it gets ridiculous when you carry it to the ultimate. And what's supposed to make the victim feel better actually just drives the process out, and the victim never gets any completion of the system.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MCCARTIN: It just keeps going on, and they're the ones that suffer.

SIMON: A lot of people have the impression that it must be cheaper to execute someone than it is to keep them in prison for life. But guess that's not true.

Mr. MCCARTIN: That is 100 percent false. By the time you get to paying the attorneys and going through all that, it's a complete fallacy. And there's been a lot of studies by commissions and so forth, to show that it is much cheaper to keep the individuals alive and in prison.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Judge McCartin, what do you - what might you say to families who lost a loved one to an act of murder who might say look, life in prison is still life...

Mr. MCCARTIN: Correct.

SIMON: ...and this person has been convicted, deprived our loved one of a life...

Mr. MCCARTIN: Correct.

SIMON: ...and we still believe in the death penalty.

Mr. MCCARTIN: Correct.

SIMON: What would you say to them when you ask for, essentially, commuting all the sentences of people on death row?

Mr. MCCARTIN: That the chances of the individual being executed on death row are zero and none.

SIMON: And that it's best for them to know that that person is locked up, and to get on with their lives?

Mr. MCCARTIN: Yeah. And put it behind them. It's the only way to go. That's all you can say.

SIMON: You're retired now, right, Your Honor?

Mr. MCCARTIN: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Your views have changed over the years - or even since your retirement?

Mr. MCCARTIN: Yes. Definitely. Definitely. I've done a 180, so to speak, but just maybe become more educated...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTIN: ...when I'm retired, and I see the system a little bit differently.

SIMON: Donald A. McCartin, a retired Superior Court judge from Orange County, California.

Your Honor, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. MCCARTIN: Thank you, sir.

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