The Death Penalty, Hypocrisy and Me

Tonight’s execution of Brandon Bernard is heartbreaking, infuriating. Yet, it is not surprising in the least bit. Brandon Benard was 18 years old at the time he crime his committed. It is a fact that he was not the shooter. Yet, Brandon was sentenced to death. (Let me clear, shooter or not, no one should be sentenced to death.) My point here and the basis of my outrage is the continued hypocrisy of America. It is a well known fact it is the position of medical experts that the brain doesn’t fully developed until age 25. This scientific information was the basis of CA Senate Bills 260 and 261. These bills granted relief to individuals who committed their crimes between the ages of 18 to 25. However, it excluded certain offenses and sentences. In essence, in my opinion, these exclusions were effectively saying that the scientific evidence was only true sometimes; not if you were convicted of a sex crime, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or sentenced to death. (Approximately one-third of those sentenced to death in CA committed their crimes between the ages of 18 and 25.) This scientific information was certainly not true in every state and definitely not for the Federal government. Hypocrisy. 

Mr. Benard was executed tonight because he was young and Black at the time he committed his crime. He was sentenced to death because his victims were white. Let’s be clear about how the death penalty (and the punishment system) works in this country. Brandon Bernard, a teenager at the time, committed his crime in Texas. The same state where a white teenager, Ethan Couch, killed 4 people and injured 5 others, when he drove drunk. His sentence? He was sent to a swanky rehab facility in CA. Why? Because he was white and his family was wealthy. More hypocrisy.

My interest in the death penalty began when I was a teenager. I knew early on that it was administered in an arbitrary and capricious manner. I read about it, studied it and in college wrote papers on it. I had no idea back then that the entire system was unfair and unjust. The same argument I had against the death penalty as a teen in the 70’s holds true in 2020. 

In 1987, I had first real job as an adult. I was an Investigator at Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender. I began, as most investigators, working on misdemeanors followed by a Juvenile caseload. I remember thinking that it was unbelievable that the county was actually paying me to be nosy. I met some incredible, hard working attorneys and investigators. Some of which I am still friends with to this day. It was while working at the PD’s office that I became intimately involved with the death penalty. 

In 1988, I was assigned to work on my first death penalty case. I was both excited and scared. It’s crazy how 32 years later, I can still remember our client’s name and every detail of the case. Mary Yale was the attorney. She was a phenomenal attorney and a great teacher. She never treated me like the baby investigator I was. It was a jury trial and our client was not sentenced to death. 

In the early 2000’s I had the opportunity to do more death penalty work. This time it was post conviction Habeas appeals. This means that my clients had already been found guilty, sentenced to death and were housed at San Quentin on Death Row. The memory of being being locked in a plexiglass visiting “room”, sitting across from my clients, who were living under a death sentence, will be forever be etched in my memory. The surrealism of working for the state to save someone’s life. The state, which is the same entity trying to kill them. Even more hypocrisy. 

In the 7 years of doing this work, 4 men were executed. The first, Mr. Massie, I stood vigil outside of San Quentin when the execution took place. The second and third, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bledsoe, respectively, Amicus briefs were filed by HCRC, where I worked at the time. I remember the energy in the office as attorneys scurried to write these briefs for the courts. Although neither were HCRC cases, the brief was written as “a friend of the court. I doubt the solemnness, in the office, when every appeal was denied, the days leading up to the execution dates and the days following the execution will ever be forgotten. The forth execution, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, I actually had the privilege to do some work on his clemency petition and more work after he was executed. Executions land a lot different when you’ve experienced that kind of proximity. 

Fast forward 15 years later, I had the opportunity to facilitate healing work with a man who spent 30 years on death row. A man who’s trauma was palpable. His death sentence had been vacated and his “new” sentence made him parole eligible. While working with him, I gained a greater and deeper understanding of the trauma before prison, the trauma of prison and the trauma in prison. How does the mind recover from 30 years living under a death sentence? He was given 6 dates over those 30 years. Thankfully he is now “home”. 

The Federal government and 28 states kill its citizens to send a message to its citizens that killing its citizens is wrong. The ultimate hypocrisy. For the past few days, much less weeks, the impending execution of Brandon Benard was not the lead story of news broadcast. For the majority of the today, Brandon Benard’s impending execution was not trending on social media. 

America, the greatest country in the world. Unless you are Black, Brown or poor. American just may be the greatest hypocrisy in the world.

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