Death penalty fight

Mar 31, 1999 at 12:00 am

A sometimes heated public hearing in Pontiac last week may signal what’s ahead as the Legislature considers putting a death penalty proposal before Michigan voters.

Detroit activists in a newly formed coalition say they plan to give capital punishment advocates the political fight of their lives.

Joint Resolution C, introduced to the Committee on Judiciary by Sen. David Jaye (R-Washington Twp.) and six other officials in January, would put before voters an amendment to the state Constitution to allow the death penalty, which Michigan abolished in 1846.

Carrying signs and wearing large pins with a red slash through the phrase "Death Penalty in Michigan," demonstrators stood in aisles and along walls in the rear of a packed auditorium at the Oakland County Service Center, where the March 23 public hearing took place.

Sen. George McManus (R-Traverse City) was the first speaker to give testimony opposing the placement of Joint Resolution C on Michigan voter ballots. By the end of the two-hour hearing, 167 people joined McManus, Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair, and Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga in filing verbal or written opposition. Five individuals spoke in favor of the proposal.

Jaye, who was loudly jeered as he took the podium, testified that his proposal was for the "protection of the community at large" and the "protection of prison guards," whom he argued face increased jeopardy from inmates serving life sentences for first degree murder.

Wayne State University law student Heather Bendure distributed literature while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?"

"This is the home of Rosa Parks, the civil rights hub, and to think that the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty could bring it back, we won’t stand for it," Bendure said.

At a news conference before the hearing, a diverse group of lawyers, educators and activists, including members of the newly formed Coalition to Prevent the Death Penalty, made the case that states that impose capital punishment have crime rates as high or higher than those without capital punishment. Other data were presented to illustrate that those most frequently sentenced to death are the poor and people of color.

"Basically, we don’t have a system that can’t ensure, and never will have a system that can ensure, that only the guilty will be convicted, and that is why we oppose the death penalty," said Detroit lawyer James Krogsrud, chairman of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan’s capital punishment committee.

Also during a news conference, Detroit Council Member Maryann Mahaffey announced the Council’s unanimous opposition to Senate Joint Resolution C.

Jennifer Davis and Jerry Goldberg, members of the Coalition to Prevent the Death Penalty, said their three-week-old group will continue producing literature and sponsoring forums to educate the public.

State Senator William Van Regenmorter (R-Hudson), who served as chairman of the hearing, said no committee decision about the proposal is expected until the fall.