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In Calif., A Death Penalty Proponent Changes Course


It was a father and son who, back in the 1970s, led the effort to strengthen the reinstated death penalty. John Briggs was a state senator at the time. His son Ron was 20 years old. They were so committed to the cause, they gave their name to the Briggs Death Penalty Initiative. Today, Ron Briggs has turned against the very law he helped enact, along with the former prosecutor who wrote it. Both these conservative Republicans are campaigning vigorously to replace the death penalty with life without parole.

To talk about that change of heart, we reached Ron Briggs. He's a farmer, an elected official in El Dorado County, California's gold country.

Good morning.

RON BRIGGS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's go back to those early days when you were campaigning for the death penalty initiative. At that time, what was driving your support and your father's support?

BRIGGS: Well, my dad then and now does believe that the death penalty is a deterrent. I believed the same thing at that time, but over the course of years, have gained firsthand knowledge and experiences as to why the death penalty doesn't work and to the cost the death penalty has today.

MONTAGNE: I know you went campaigning for this proposition. I know you've referred to the current system as a multibillion dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades.

BRIGGS: It does. And you know, that was not the intent in 1978. The intent was to put a death penalty in place that made swift executions, would reduce the population, or at least keep static the population of death row, and theoretically the bad guys would go away from California and go do their business somewhere else. But none of that happened. What did happen is we tripled the population of death row from 1978 till today. We've cost the general fund about $4 billion. There is a 2011 study, as Judge Alarcon and Paula Mitchell, who is a Loyola professor - they did a three-year study on their own dime. He's - the judge is for the death penalty and Professor Mitchell is not. And that gave Californians for the very first time a look at the cost of the death penalty, and it's a very ugly picture.

MONTAGNE: But what do you say to those people who say that the state promised them that justice would be done and justice is the death penalty?

BRIGGS: Well, I don't know what I would do in face of - I've talked to several people who have called me and they are victims' family. One said that he would vote for Proposition 34 simply because he was tired of the appeals. You know, the way the system works now is every single one of those victims' families, they wake up each and every day with the thought that a phone call is going to come saying, gee, so-and-so is going to be retried. And you know, to me as a society, we've got to stop that. We have to take action to protect the victims' families from this ongoing onslaught of appeals.

MONTAGNE: You know, in this campaign for the ballot initiative to replace the death penalty with life without parole, the campaign and its supporters, they're not making a moral argument against the death penalty. Why not? And what about you?

BRIGGS: Well, I'm very Republican, and I'm Catholic, very - very - I'm a Knight of Columbus. My knuckles drag pretty hard when I get out of my cave every morning to go to work. And I - Catholics believe that all life is precious. So the morality question for me is simple. In 1978, the church didn't offer much of a guidance on it. It wasn't until about 1981 when the church actually came out with some true guidance on the death penalty. And over the years they - one of the prayers of the church is to end the death penalty throughout the world.

I believe that the death penalty question, if asked to you, to a guy down the street, to me, we're all going to have a very visceral response in one way or another. And so I don't know if you can really truly talk about the morality of the issue and argue it.

MONTAGNE: What about your father? As you say, he's as much a believer in the death penalty as he was those years ago. Has this caused a rift at all between you?

BRIGGS: No. You know, actually, Dad's my biggest supporter. We have a little, small hundred-acre farm that we've been there since 1970, and I built a house out there. Dad lives there, and so I see him daily. We talk. My mom's a little peeved at me. Dad's still a supporter of the death penalty. He hasn't come to the light yet, but one day my goal is to get his support.

MONTAGNE: Ron Briggs is a proponent of Proposition 34 here in California, a ballot initiative that would end the death penalty in favor of life without parole. Thank you for joining us.

BRIGGS: Thank you for having me, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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