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PrepTalk: Ty Alper

Students stay after the talk to ask Alper questions about his work. Photography by Polly Lockman

On Tuesday, January 27th, UC Berkeley professor Ty Alper joined us for a PrepTalk to discuss his work as a human rights lawyer and law professor. A graduate of Berkeley High School, Alper matriculated at Brown University. He graduated in 1995, and went on to receive his law degree at New York University. Today, Alper is a clinical professor of law at the UC Berkeley Death Penalty Clinic, an advocate for death row inmates, and the director of the Berkeley Board of Education. A close friend of Jonathan Zucker, director of admission and financial aid at College Prep, Alper was invited to speak on the death penalty in California and his experience as a lawyer for death row inmates.

Alper began by assessing the audience’s knowledge using a cellphone poll. Some of the questions he asked included “does California have the death penalty?” and “what crimes would be considered worthy of the death penalty?” The majority of students seemed to be aware that California offers the death penalty, but many were surprised to find out that California has significantly more inmates on death row (a total of 745 men and women) than the next leading state, Florida, which currently has 404 inmates on death row.

Alper quickly established that he was not in favor of the death penalty. As an advocate for those sentenced to death, he is responsible for considering the environmental pressures and broken situations that have led to their criminal tendencies. Alper stated that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is “to advocate for those who rarely have anyone [to] stand up for them.” He mentioned a case he was involved in; a young African-American male was indicted for arson and burglary. The prosecution pushed for long-term incarceration, but Alper’s responsibility as the defense was to illuminate the complicated background of the individual, and to appeal to the emotions of the jury. Some digging revealed that the man on the stand was a victim of long-term drug and alcohol abuse and had grown up in a broken, drug-addicted family. Alper wondered whether a different situation growing up would’ve resulted in the same criminal tendencies.

Along with finding the death penalty unconstitutional and immoral, Alper brought up the question of cost. Many students were shocked to find out that the death penalty, on average, is more expensive than the alternative– life imprisonment without parole. Alper explained that to sentence an inmate to death, multiple trials must be observed. First, a trial must be conducted to determine whether the prisoner is question is, in fact, guilty. Next, another trial must be conducted to determine whether the guilty inmate is to be sentenced to death or whether they will be allowed a lighter form of retribution. The multiple trials take years to resolve as evidence is gathered and dissected, and in the meantime, there are lawyers to be paid and courtrooms to be rented. Not to mention the daily needs of the inmate, including food and shelter, must be met. If the total cost is added up, it turns out that all of the proceedings for a death penalty case rack up more expenses than even life imprisonment without parole.

So, if the death penalty is more expensive than the next available punishment, life imprisonment without parole, why do numerous states still put inmates on death row? Many polled citizens who claimed to be in favor of the death penalty believe that it is an ideal form of the Hammurabian “eye for an eye” code of retribution. If someone commits a violent murder, it is only fair that they themselves are sentenced to death. Others wrongfully believe that the death penalty is significantly cheaper than incarceration, an attractive option when they believe that federal and state prisons are already guzzling too many funds. But despite the prevalence of the death penalty (only 18 states have abolished prisoner execution), very few prisoners are actually sentenced to death. In California alone, 22,000 people commit murder each decade. Of these individuals, only 250 are given the death penalty (most death penalty sentencings are reserved for “the worst of the worst” cases such as cold-blooded massacres and serial rapes). And of the 250 individuals sentenced to death, only 3 are executed each decade— a tiny fraction of the original 22,000 murderers. Why only 3?

Alper stressed that the 3 inmates that are executed are merely unlucky and that one would not be able to point to their crimes and definitively say that they are worse than those committed by the other 247 criminals on death row. Of course, to receive the death penalty they must have committed a heinous crime in the first place, but it is an amalgamation of unlucky events that gets you to the chopping block; most executed prisoners are poor, are unable to hire a high-quality lawyer, target white individuals, and are of color. If an African- American death row prisoner happens to have been raised in a low-income background, and has targeted a white male, they are significantly more likely to be executed than the next death row prisoner over, who is a white high-income individual. So what happens to the other 247 death row inmates? Expensive lawyers can reverse a death penalty sentence, instead securing life imprisonment. Others simply get lost in the disorganized penal system, dying of old age or suicide before they are ever executed. “Really,” Alper said, “the process is extremely arbitrary”.

Alper concluded the talk by answering audience questions, the word “arbitrary” looming large on a white Powerpoint slide in the background. Despite the work of human rights lawyers such as Alper, the broken penal system is difficult to gauge. The best any advocates for death row inmates can do is appeal to the pathos of the jury, resurface their client’s buried background, and hope for the best.

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