Former District Attorney Sam Milsap Admits "I Made a Mistake" in Death Penalty Prosecution - 16 Years after Execution

People wonder why I am so adamently opposed to the death penalty, and then stories like this appear in the media and I, in turn, wonder how anyone can support capital punishment. 

Sam Milsap's Mea Culpa

Sam Milsap is a seasoned criminal lawyer with over 30 years experience, and for a long while he served as the head District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas (better known to most of us as the location of the city of San Antonio).  Last week, Mr. Milsap was a guest speaker in Topeka, Kansas, where the annual meeting of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty was being held.  And during his speech to this formidable group, Sam Milsap did a brave thing.  He admitted he was wrong.

Milsap explained from the podium that back in the early 1990s, he was in charge of prosecuting a young man named Ruben Montoya Cantu.  In his zeal to win -- something that every criminal defense attorney recognizes in ambitious, driven DAs -- Sam Milsap charged ahead in his case, and with only the testimony of one single eyewitness, he obtained a guilty verdict and a sentence of death for Mr. Cantu in the murder of Pedro Gomez. 

That's right.  No physical evidence.  None.  No admission of guilt from Cantu.  None.  Only the finger-pointing from one man -- Juan Moreno, who had been shot alongside Gomez as they were being robbed.   (Nevermind that the co-defendant said that 17 year old Ruben Cantu wasn't there at the time.)

Much has been written about the weakness of eyewitness testimony, so it should come as a surprise to no one when years later, Moreno changed his mind.  That's right:  the eyewitness recanted.

Or, as Milsap so eloquently described it, " ' 20 years later, my star witness says, ' I lied.'"

The Danger of Zealous Prosecutors in Death Penalty Cases

Sam Milsap must be given his due for not hanging out a "gone fishing" sign, but instead using his time and energy to do things like appear at the KCADP national conference to tell the story of how his vigorous efforts put a 17 year old to death by lethal execution in Texas.  That is a good thing, and every district attorney in the country should hear what Sam Milsap has to say.

Meanwhile, all of us must be aware of the temptations of prosecutors everywhere -- to win their case.  To acheive a personal victory, to pursue a reputation as an advocate as well as doing the job that is assigned to them.  In our criminal justice system, prosecutors have the role of proving up a case against a criminal defendant -- and if capital punishment is on the table, it's their job to try and prove its applicability in certain cases.

As Sam Milsap's story teaches, the danger here is that when a prosecutor makes a serious mistake, and the death penalty is involved, the consequences are too high.  That teenager in San Antonio is dead today, and no one can fix that -- although, from the sound of Mr. Milsap's speech last weekend, no one would like the opportunity to do so more than he. 

The High Cost of the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment is Very Expensive

In these economic times, there has been significant media coverage of various states considering the banning of the death penalty -- not on moral grounds or arguments about its ineffectiveness in crime prevention, but on the simple argument that it costs too much.   That's right:  it is cheaper to keep someone incarcerated for the rest of their lives than it is to kill them, ending their life on a set calendar date. 

How can this be?  How is the death penalty so costly?

First, asAmnestyUSA points out, there are the trial costs.  When a prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, the cost of litigation skyrockets.  Discovery -- investigation of the crime -- becomes more intensive and therefore, more expensive.  There is a heavier motion practice in a death penalty case.  And, remember, once the death penalty is on the table, attorneys are preparing for not one but two trials -- first, the conviction phase (deciding guilt or innocence) and then the penalty phase (determining the sentence). 

That second trial, the sentencing phase of the case, can be extensive in preparation and presentation.  Aggravating circumstances must be presented to the factfinder with evidence that is authenticated and admissible.  Mitigating factors must likewise be provided to the jury.  Often, expert testimony will be provided by several leaders in their fields (scientific or forensic experts, mental health experts, etc.).  Death cannot be imposed upon someone who has been found guilty of a capital crime without all due process efforts being exhausted.

Second, there are the appeals that must follow any complicated capital punishment case.  Post-conviction proceedings will be filed.  These will take time.  Appellate courts will grade the papers of the trial court to insure that the law has been followed.   One growing concern is insuring that the defendant had effective assistance of counsel during the conviction phase.  Sometimes, appellate courts will be asked to consider the revelation of new evidence or the reconsideration of old evidence based upon new technology (such as new DNA testing procedures).   The appellate process in death penalty cases is time consuming and expensive, as well.

What kind of numbers are we talking about here, in terms of cost?

The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of studies done regarding various states in the country, and how much they might save annually if they banned capital punishment.  According to the DPIC, Florida would save $51,000,000 each year and California would save a whopping $125,500,000 each year.

That's annually.   Which means - using the DPIC numbers -- that over a five year period, Florida would save $255,000,000 -- that's a quarter of a billion dollars -- and California would save an astounding $627,500,000 during the same five years.  

Surely this practical, basic argument merits serious consideration by even the most ardent supporter of capital punishment.   Especially for a state that is currently handing out IOUs ....

Unique Perspective: Former Warden of San Quentin's View on the Death Penalty

This week, a national group fighting against the Death Penalty gave a special award to Jeanne Woodford in recognition of her courage in speaking out against the death penalty. Why is Jeanne Woodford so special?

Prison Guard to Warden of San Quentin to Head of State Corrections Department

Well, Mrs. Woodford began her career as a prison guard at San Quentin, rose to become the warden of California's famous state prison for several years, and then undertook what she herself calls the "top job in the state -- director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation."

During her stint as warden, Jeanne Woodford oversaw the execution of four prisoners. Retiring from civil service in 2006, she is now active in her efforts against capital punishment, and it serves us all to read her own words in explanation for her position in an editorial she wrote for the Los Angeles Times in October 2008.

Jeanne Woodford's Position Letter

There, Mrs. Woodford explains what led her, with her unique vantage point on capital punishment as warden of San Quentin and head of California's Corrections Department, to challenge the state's ability to impose death as punishment for a crime.

What Joanne Woodford writes is worth your time to read.

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