District attorney and former warden debate death penalty on campus

Joe Wright/Staff
Former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford, pictured above, debates Contra Costa district attorney Mark A. Peterson about Proposition 34, during a seminar in Wheeler Hall Auditorium.

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Hundreds of students packed Wheeler Auditorium Wednesday to hear a debate between the Contra Costa County district attorney and a former prison warden on Proposition 34, a ballot measure that aims to end California’s death penalty at the polls in November.

The debate was between former San Quentin State Prison warden Jeanne Woodford and District Attorney Mark Peterson and was this week’s presentation for the campus course Political Science 179, Haas professor Alan Ross’s undergraduate colloquium on political science.

Prop. 34 will replace all mentions of the death sentence in California law with a life sentence without parole. The proposition aims to save a billion dollars over the next five years, which will be reallocated toward investigating unsolved crimes.

Both debaters focused the bulk of their arguments on massive fiscal inefficiencies in the death row system, citing a report updated last week analyzing capital punishment in California. The report was published by Arthur Alarcón, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and Paula Mitchell, an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles.

Woodford, who was in favor of the ballot measure to end the death penalty, cited the total state cost of the penalty since it was reinstated about 30 years ago as a reason for its replacement.

“Four billion dollars has been spent on the death penalty,” Woodford said. “Only 13 executions have been carried out.”

Peterson also considered this point from the report, but said the treatment of prisoners and an inefficient appeals process is to blame, not the death penalty itself.

“Appeals take too long,” Peterson said.

When asked by Peterson to raise their hands in a poll, only a few students raised their hands in favor of the death penalty, with most of the remaining 600 responding against it. Roughly 30 students raised their hands as undecided.

“I thought it was an alright attempt at an unbiased debate,” said UC Berkeley senior Phillip Leyva at the conclusion of the debate. “I made up my mind a while ago, but anyone in the middle will have a hard time deciding.”

Contact Jacob Brown at [email protected].