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The Repentant Executioner
Laura Fraser | Photo: Kathrin Miller | June 18, 2012
Jeanne Woodford, ex-warden of San Quentin and killer of four souls, is not who you’d expect to lead the fight against the death penalty. Which is exactly why she might win.
The first man Jeanne Woodford executed was Manuel Babbitt. He’d been convicted of murdering a 78-year-old grandmother named Leah Schendel, who died of a heart attack after he broke into her Sacramento home during a 1980 crime spree and then viciously beat her. Babbitt was an ex-Marine who’d been wounded at the notoriously bloody siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, for which he received the Purple Heart while on death row. After the war, he’d suffered recurrent hallucinations and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); his appeals attorneys argued that he’d assaulted Schendel during a flashback, yet his trial lawyer—allegedly drunk throughout the proceedings—had failed to introduce Babbitt’s mental illness to the jury. Governor Gray Davis, himself a vet, refused a plea for clemency, and the phone connected to the state Supreme Court—one of four direct lines to San Quentin’s Lethal Injection Facility (LIF)—never rang.
Babbitt’s final day on Earth, May 3, 1999, was his 50th birthday; he meditated, fasted, and donated the $50 for his last meal to homeless veterans. Inside San Quentin’s wrought-iron gates, the prison’s first female warden was following the state’s detailed execution procedures, a process that had begun 45 days before. Around 9 p.m., Woodford advised Babbitt, already in the LIF holding cell, that he could prepare a last written statement and take a sedative. She made sure that the witnesses—attorneys, the victim’s relatives, members of the media, and Babbitt’s brother, who’d turned him in to police thinking they’d help him get back into a mental hospital—had been escorted into the viewing area. Near midnight, she ordered that Babbitt be brought into the execution chamber and strapped to the green gurney, which resembles a dentist’s chair. She stood by as the execution order was read.
At 12:27 a.m., Woodford instructed the Infusion Sub-Team to administer the lethal injection chemicals. A few moments later, the convulsions began. At 12:37, Babbitt was pronounced dead. Only then did the public information officer read Babbitt’s statement over the PA system:
“I forgive all of you,” he’d said.
Thirteen years and three executions later, Woodford still can’t explain what it felt like in those final hours and minutes to administer the= machinery of death—to be the one, as the abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean puts it, “who held the needle and gave the nod.” “You just couldn’t get yourself and your staff through that process if you opened the door to those kinds of thoughts,” Woodford says, twisting one of her small, stacked diamond rings.
And today? The woman who spent a half decade overseeing the nation’s largest death row glances out the window of San Francisco–based Death Penalty Focus, the organization she now heads, which is behind SAFE California, this November’s potentially landmark ballot measure to repeal the state’s capital punishment law, replacing it with life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). “I still have dreams—nightmares,” she says. “I had one just last weekend.”
At 57, Woodford has a quick smile and tidy chestnut hair; she looks more like an encouraging sixth-grade teacher—albeit one who wouldn’t hesitate to flunk you if you didn’t hand in your homework—than an executioner. She turns back into the office, where criminal justice books crowd the shelves and a photo of a young protester brandishing an “Abolish the Death Penalty” sign sits on her desk. “Imagine going to work every day…planning to kill someone,” she says.
She likens the effects—on the correctional officers who knew the prisoner, on the execution team, on Woodford herself—to a form of PTSD. “Asking public servants to kill on behalf of the voters is so harmful to them personally,” she says at another point. “Over time, you look back at your role and think about what good did it do—and the answer is, none.”
When Woodford, then 24, took her first job as a corrections officer at San Quentin in 1978—the same year California voters reinstated capital punishment—just six inmates resided on death row. No one had been executed since 1967, and the death penalty vote notwithstanding, few people working inside the prison believed the medieval looking gas chamber would ever come back into use. Today, the state houses more than 720 condemned prisoners; the number keeps changing as new inmates are sentenced and others succumb to old age, by far the most frequent cause of death on death row. Lethal injection has replaced lethal gas as California’s preferred method of state-sanctioned killing, though legal battles over which cocktail of deadly poisons is the most humane have resulted in a suspension of all executions since 2006. In 34 years, the state that gave new meaning to the phrase “tough on crime”—turning its politics upside down in its determination to make the worst murderers pay the ultimate price—has carried out just 13 executions. “The death penalty is a fiction,” Woodford says. “It’s a fraud.”
The truth is, California likes to put people on death row but is loath to actually kill them—an ambivalence that reflects both a deeply ingrained vigilante streak and an equally powerful belief in due process. These dueling impulses turn out to be extremely expensive, especially in light of another sweeping measure that taxpayers enacted in 1978, Proposition 13, which has emptied state coffers to a degree many supporters could never have imagined. Woodford, a fiscal conservative who managed an $8 billion budget as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undersecretary of prisons, lays out the numbers: Over 30 years, the state has spent $4 billion to finance its capital punishment habit, mainly on court and legal costs and special inmate handling. Death row cells are single instead of double, she explains. The prisoners require more security, with meals and services delivered to them; they’re given greater access to lawyers and investigators and more opportunities to appeal. In the end, a prisoner facing the needle ends up costing the state $90,000 more per year than an inmate in the general population, or about three times as much. “On death row, they’re watching TV, out in the yard, in the visiting room, or on the telephone,” Woodford says. “There’s no accountability at all. We’ve had many inmates ask for the death penalty partly because it’s an easier way of doing time.”
In 2008, the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, led by former attorney general John Van de Kamp, concluded that the state’s “dysfunctional” death penalty system cost taxpayers $126 million more per year than sending convicts to prison for life without parole would. Making it more functional—mainly by funding adequate numbers of attorneys to speed up the appeals process—would add $96 million per year to the tab. Last June, retired federal appeals judge Arthur L. Alarcón, who sentenced many defendants to death while on the state bench, and Loyola Law School adjunct professor Paula M. Mitchell ran the numbers and concluded that the excess costs of death vs. life were closer to $184 million per year; the average amount per execution since 1978 came to $308 million. If California’s laws remained the same, Alarcón and Mitchell added ominously, the total price tag would soar to $9 billion by 2030, when the death row population would likely exceed 1,000.
Yet these dire figures, made even more disturbing by the state’s unprecedented fiscal crisis, are what give anti–capital punishment activists their best hope of repealing the state’s death penalty law in a generation. If it passes, the SAFE initiative will be historic: Though California would be the 18th state to abolish the death penalty, the only place ever to do so by voter referendum was Oregon, in 1964—and it reversed course in the late 1970s. Considering that as recently as 2009, Los Angeles County sent more people to death row than all of Texas, the impact—symbolic and real—of a SAFE victory would be momentous.
Knowing that the odds remain very much against them, capital punishment opponents have adopted a new pragmatism, informed by more than three decades of battles over hard-line ballot initiatives on criminal justice, taxes, immigration, and gay rights. In this repeal effort, thou-shalt-not-spend conservatives are lining up with—and pushing aside—traditional thou-shaltnot-kill abolitionists. The messaging is more Tea Party than Occupy San Quentin. And it is Jeanne Woodford, with her impeccable law enforcement credentials and conservative suits and pearls, who may be the key to the effort’s success.
That’s certainly the hope of Death Penalty Focus’s chair, actor Mike Farrell, who hired Woodford to lead the organization that used to picket her actions with grim regularity. “For years, we’ve been on the outside looking in,” Farrell says, “and Jeanne puts us on the inside looking out.”
Woodford likes to say she grew up in San Quentin. Raised in West Marin—she was a Tomales High School cheerleader and a Future Farmer of America—she went straight to a job at the prison after earning a criminal justice degree from Sonoma State. Recruiters made being a guard sound like social work, she says. In some ways, she spent her whole corrections career trying to make her various jobs fit that rose-colored description.
As one of the first women to work the cell blocks, she was subjected to “horrible” sexual harassment from inmates and officers alike. “They didn’t want me there, which is not a very safe feeling inside a prison,” she says. “No one had my back.” The actual prison conditions weren’t so bad, though. In those days, “most inmates had some kind of college or self-help program to do. There were still violent parts of the prison, but the general population was very functional. It was like a town.”
But all that was changing fast. Two years before Woodford was hired, the Department of Corrections dropped “rehabilitation” from its mission statement. The same year (1976) saw passage of a harsh “determinate” sentencing law, which brought more people into prisons for longer, fixed sentences, with no early-release incentives to make them behave. “It overwhelmed the system,” Woodford says. As facilities became overcrowded, the most serious offenders were sent to the oldest prisons in the system, San Quentin and Folsom. “The culture changed very quickly to become very, very violent.” As Woodford describes having to “rack a round” as a warning to an inmate—she mimes cocking a shotgun in the air—her ladylike demeanor momentarily hardens.
The state’s criminal justice policies continued their rightward trajectory throughout her tenure at the prison. She stayed for 26 years—while raising five kids with her husband, Eric Woodford, who has since retired as a parole administrator—because she felt she was making a positive impact with projects like a family visiting program and HIV-related peer education, and because “in criminal justice there’s so much to learn—you can’t get bored.”
After taking over the head job in 1999, Woodford nurtured even more programs—college courses, a gospel choir, substance abuse treatment, art and parenting classes, group therapy, sports—relying on nonprofits and more than 3,000 volunteers (the prison’s Marin location attracts legions of do-gooders). Her proudest achievement was Success Dorm, a reentry program. “We weren’t giving enough thought to how we released people back into their communities,” she says—no anger-management training, no treatment for sexual deviancy, no resources for making it on the outside. “That’s a public safety nightmare,” she adds. “Ninety-five percent of them are going to be out of prison, walking the streets, maybe living on the same block you live on. That’s actually happened to me.”
“She was a legendary warden,” says Loni Hancock, the former Berkeley mayor who now chairs the public safety committee in the state senate. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat with long-term expertise in fiscal and criminal justice issues, describes walking the grounds and cell blocks with Woodford, interacting with inmates who were doing work like gardening and sweeping. “I immediately noticed the kind of respect they had for her.”
Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, which litigates to improve prison conditions—hardly a warden’s natural ally—says that the safety of her staff and inmates was always Woodford’s top priority. He recalls touring the prison with someone who was delivering medications; when the key to one cell didn’t work, the prisoner was skipped. When Specter mentioned the incident to the warden, “Jeanne stopped the meeting, called the sergeant in charge of the housing unit, and asked them to check on the situation immediately.” Most wardens, he says, would have just promised to look into it and then perhaps never followed up.
Still, Ellen Eggers, an attorney who helped represent Manuel Babbitt, says Woodford wasn’t universally admired. Eggers says she made some death row conditions more restrictive—for instance, changing the visiting area from a big room with tables (“We called it the student union,” Eggers says) to a collection of 15 individual cages and forcing inmates to exercise in small dog-run pens. “My initial impression was that this woman warden was trying to make a name for herself as a tough guy,” adds Eggers, now a member of the Death Penalty Focus board and a Woodford fan.
Woodford responds that an assault in the visiting room forced her to take drastic steps. Later, she reluctantly supported building a new death row (plans for which Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed): “I had death row inmates in the oldest prison in the state without an electric fence, which is just insane.” The situation reflected her feelings about her job, which were
growing more complicated every year.
Woodford recalls sitting in her new office soon after becoming warden and pulling down a musty old tome that contained the names and faces of every person executed at San Quentin since 1852. “It was like walking through history,” she says. “There would be whole sections of Chinese Americans, then African Americans. You just knew many of these people had to be innocent. People get it wrong.”
As a Catholic, she had deep private objections to capital punishment. As warden, she told herself that as long as executions were going to occur, it was her job to be as professional and humane as possible: “Better it was me than somebody who wanted to kill someone,” she says. Her family was proud of her—her youngest son loved introducing her to his principal as the “boss of San Quentin”—but, she says, “the whole time I was warden, I don’t think I went a single night without being woken up by something happening at the prison.” At some point, she took up running five miles a day, plus even more time at the gym: “I got into exercise like I can’t even describe.” The exhaustion helped her manage the stress, particularly the emotional fallout from the executions.
Woodford finally left San Quentin in 2004 to become director of the state Department of Corrections, then undersecretary. The timing seemed auspicious for a reform-minded soccer-mom ex-warde—Schwarzenegger added the word Rehabilitation to the department’s name. “He said corrections ought to correct, but he was still tough on crime. Before he was a superstar he used to go to San Quentin and lift weights with inmates.”
But the governor didn’t put any real muscle behind reform, and after a series of proposals went nowhere, he stopped talking about it entirely. (“The inmates always joke that the R in CDCR is silent,” Woodford says.) Meanwhile, the system was a revolving door for tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates imprisoned for 90 days or less. “It was the most expensive bus ride to nowhere—thousands of dollars spent [per stay] and it doesn’t make us any safer,” Woodford says. “You put those dollars into more policing, like New York did, and you’d bring your crime rate down.” Her views have since found validation in Brown’s “realignment” plan, a cornerstone of his criminal justice policy that keeps lesser offenders in county jails rather than
state prisons. But at the time, no one in Sacramento seemed to be listening, and barely 18 months into the job, she quit. After another brief stint as San Francisco’s chief adult-probation officer, Woodford retired from the corrections field in 2008.
But closing that door allowed her to quietly open another, as she began volunteering for Death Penalty Focus, doing outreach to law enforcement. That same year, she came out against the death penalty publicly, writing an op ed in the Los Angeles Times in which she described presiding over the 2001 execution of Robert Massie, who’d been on death row twice—once for a 1965 murder, and again after the death penalty was temporarily abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 and he committed another slaying while on parole. Under the SAFE initiative, once convicted of the first murder, he never would have been set free. “We should have condemned Massie to permanent imprisonment,” she wrote. “Massie needed to be kept away from society, but we did not need to kill him.”
Still, when Mike Farrell announced Woodford’s appointment as Death Penalty Focus’s new executive director in April 2011, “there was a big debate,” says Sister Prejean, the nun who wrote Dead Man Walking, who has witnessed six executions around the country. “People didn’t know if they could trust her.” One board member resigned and others expressed serious reservations, though Prejean quickly came around. “What do you do when you come to realize that something you participated in is wrong? You could just walk away, but I admire Jeanne’s integrity because she’s actively working to end it.”
In the past year, this has involved an ever-increasing round of public appearances, which can be excruciating for Woodford, who describes herself as fundamentally shy, and for her family (who declined to be interviewed for this piece). One afternoon this spring found her on a panel at Golden Gate University Law School, with another seemingly unlikely SAFE supporter, former Los Angeles County district attorney Gil Garcetti, and two international experts on capital punishment. Though everyone was on the same side, the Europeans and the Americans seemed to speak different languages. The Europeans asked the fundamental question of whether the state has a right to kill and noted that the experience of World War II had prompted their countries to declare an emphatic no. They described the death penalty as being uncivilized, a form of revenge practiced only by countries with the worst human rights records.
The Californians, meanwhile, focused on costs. After years of championing capital punishment, Garcetti said he had come to see it as “outrageously, obscenely expensive.” With 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of rapes in California unsolved, he argued that the money spent on maintaining the death penalty system could be better used to hire police to track down the dangerous criminals still walking the streets.
After the panel discussion, when I asked Farrell why SAFE was focusing so much on money and not morality, he was blunt: “Because we want to win.” In 30 years of activism, he says, he’s been reluctant to raise the cost issue until now—for one thing, no one believed him; for another, “it wasn’t an argument that, frankly, I wanted to make, because I thought it cheapened the moral stature of the debate.” But now, the public dialogue is changing in a way that his side would be crazy not to seize upon. “Everybody is hurting; everybody is saying, ‘Let’s be accountable.’”
Prejean doesn’t even see it as a real shift. “Martin Luther King said that a budget is a moral document—the way we use our resources, for life or for death, for schools or for executions.” She says the SAFE initiative’s emphasis on putting the savings from repealing the death penalty into public safety—$30 million a year for three years—is especially smart. “If people know they can be safe, it takes the wind out of most of the arguments.”
If there’s a lockstep nature to the SAFE side’s talking points, it’s no accident. Abolitionists have been told not to discuss any of the people who’ve been executed. Journalists are directed only to conservatives who’ve been swayed on the issue (including Ron Briggs, son of the El Dorado lawmaker behind both the 1978 ballot measure reinstating the death penalty and the infamous antigay Briggs Initiative defeated by Harvey Milk that same year), victims’ families who support the measure, and exonerees who once faced death for crimes they didn’t commit— no bleeding-heart types. SAFE’s campaign director, Natasha Minsker—the death penalty policy director for the Northern California ACLU—has made herself unavailable to the press.
Woodford, the ultimate symbol of law-and-order ambivalence and evolution, provides all the nuance the SAFE camp thinks it needs right now. “I’m morally opposed to the death penalty, but I’m not passionate about it because of my moral position,” she tells me. “I’m passionate about it because I’ve seen how wasteful it is.”
Of course, SAFE already has the abolitionists on its side; it has to appeal to the undecideds, of whom there are few. “People are ideologically locked on this issue,” says Steve Smith, a consultant to the campaign who presumably has learned the lessons of another high-profile campaign he was involved in, the failed attempt to stop Prop. 8. “We’re going into the race with 85 to 90 percent of the voters already going one way or another.” Smith says the big turnout for the presidential election should help his cause, because the people who are undecided on the death penalty are the same ones who often skip midterm elections. There’s a possibility, of course, that the mix of hugely important yet utterly confusing ballot propositions—a variety of tax initiatives aimed at saving critical state services and public education from going over the brink, an initiative to reform the Three Strikes law, which has left prisons at the bursting point—will turn off voters altogether. “The default in California is to vote no,” Mark Baldassare, director of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, points out.
But Smith is hopeful that the crowded ballot will actually benefit SAFE by highlighting the staggering costs of three decades of hard-line criminal justice policies and by giving taxpayers a seemingly simple way to stop one of the most high-profile fiscal drains. He also takes a glass-half-full view of recent polls, which tend to show support for the death penalty in the low 60 percents—until Californians are given the choice of life without possibility of parole. “Then it flips around,” says Smith, “and LWOP beats the death penalty, sometimes by a majority, always by a plurality.”
Fiscally conservative voters could be the swing group, says Baldassare, whose own polling showed SAFE narrowly ahead this spring. Public opinion on criminal justice policy is changing dramatically, adds Tim Silard, a former aide to Kamala Harris
who now heads the San Francisco– based Rosenberg Foundation. “By enormous margins, Californians are crystal clear that they don’t want to spend more money on prisons. The public understands that these extremely tough crime provisions, many enacted at the ballot box, are financially unsustainable.”
UC Berkeley’s Frank Zimring, who has written several books on capital punishment, says SAFE’s dollars-andsense argument represents an impor-tant shift that turns the death penalty from a foaming-at-the-mouth issue into something you can discuss in polite company, over dinner. “It’s an attempt to make it something other than a status competition between homicide victims and murder defendants, in which people are asked whether they prefer victims or defendants, and if they prefer victims, pile on the punitive meat.”
Still, he believes that lawmakers would have a better chance of getting the death penalty repealed (although a bill sponsored by Loni Hancock after the Alarcón and Mitchell report came out never made it out of committee). Of the 109 countries that have banned executions, none has done so by popular ballot. Zimring says California needs a strong leader on the issue, though he doesn’t blame the beleaguered Jerry Brown, a longtime death penalty opponent, for giving only tepid support: “His political capital is spread in so many different pockets that he needs to spend it on capital punishment like Custer needed more Indians.”
Does Zimring think Woodford could be that leader? “She’s a sweetheart,” he says. But whether most voters realize it or not, wardens “have traditionally been violent opponents of the death penalty. We need one of the leaders who actually got us into this pickle.”
The opposition, relatively subdued so far, won’t stay that way for long. Woodford recently debated Phil Stirling, the L.A. deputy district attorney who heads his office’s Crimes Against Peace Officers Section—he, too, calls Woodford “lovely”—at St. Mary’s College. He argued that the SAFE camp’s cost-saving figures are exaggerated—“This isn’t evidence that would hold up in Judge Alarcón’s court”—and that the $30 million a year that the measure would set aside for law enforcement is only “a raindrop in the pool” compared with billion-dollar budgets in places like Los Angeles. With that money spread among the state’s 58 counties, L.A.’s share would “buy a Crown Victoria car, one lab tech, and two police officers,” he scoffed.
Telling me that he doesn’t know any law enforcement people or conservatives who support SAFE, Stirling calls the cost issue a “Trojan horse” and dismisses Woodford’s position as “intellectually dishonest.” He then describes, in graphic detail, the crimes committed by Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, the “Tool Box Killers,” who kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered five teenage girls along the Pacific Coast Highway in 1979. “Those kinds of guys need to be put to death. Not the average killer, but the ‘holy shit’ kind of killer,” Stirling insists.
The day of the debate, Woodford seemed unruffled by Stirling’s aggressive courtroom style, as she has undoubtedly been unruffled by most events in her career. As for the truly heinous crimes, she says whenever anyone asks, her heart goes out to the victims’ families. But, she adds, it gives families no relief to wait 20 to 25 years for an execution, reliving the crime at every legal turn, only to discover that putting someone to death (if that actually happens) provides none of the closure for which they yearn. “It’s a false promise to the victims,” she says. Life without possibility of parole, on the other hand, is quick, certain, and final. “LWOP is a harsh punishment—those people are going to die in prison.”
As for the grueling fight ahead, it doesn’t faze her, Woodford says.
“We’re going to win in 2012,” she tells me. “I’ve heard from so many people who used to be in favor of the death penalty that they’re opposed to it now—particularly people I worked with in San Quentin. Some on moral grounds, but most on ‘this is just ridiculous’ grounds.”