What California’s Death Penalty Court Decision Means to Me

Task Force organizer Malcolm Shanks in 2012 training UCLA students on talking to voters about the death penalty.

Task Force organizer Malcolm Shanks in 2012 training UCLA students on talking to voters about the death penalty

Yesterday’s federal court decision on the death penalty was victory in the fight for universal human rights. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that the California death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And this is indeed the truth. Since 1977 California has sentenced over 900 people to die; however, more of those inmates have died in the limbo of death row than have actually been executed. California has 22% of the death row inmates in the United States, over 700 people. All 700 are victims of a broken system in the most heavily incarcerated society in the world. Race, gender, class and sexual orientation are also factors in the likelihood of receiving the death penalty. Specifically speaking, Black & Latino working-class people and queer women are disproportionately represented in death row populations, which makes it clear why it’s so important for LGBT and civil rights organizations to work together on this issue. This system is broken, and it impacts people like me and my loved ones the most.

This court decision is particularly important to me, not simply because I personally oppose the death penalty, but also because I was especially lucky in 2012 to be able to work towards a California without the death penalty. That year, a broad coalition of organizations, which included the Task Force worked on a ballot measure to eliminate the death penalty in California. Through our work on the ground, I met many former death row inmates who were falsely accused of a crime. Listening to these heartbreaking stories of cruelty and injustice was a transformative experience that strengthened my conviction. And while we changed many hearts and minds on this issue, we were unable to successfully win in the ballot box. Yet I still believe it is well past time for our country eliminate the death penalty.

It is the Task Force’s commitment to doing intersectional work that placed me in a context where I could work for a change that is so important to the liberation of queer & trans people of color. It is my sincere hope that in the wake of this decision, Californians pressure the state Attorney General’s office not to appeal this decision. The state of California should not have the power to decide who lives and who dies. It is my dream that one day we can live in a world that educates and empowers people instead of setting them up for a lifetime in prison. I am sure that yesterday’s decision is a step in that direction.

by Malcolm Shanks, Organizer, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force