Former San Quentin Warden Urges Abolition of Death Penalty

Saint Mary’s Speaker Promotes Initiative to Outlaw Executions in California

Woodford with studentsAs warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford carried out four executions, and each one was harder than the last.

With the final execution, she said, “I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.” As it turned out, she never had to order another person’s death because Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked her to serve as undersecretary and then director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Now, after spending 30 years in the criminal justice system, Woodford serves as executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a national nonprofit advocacy group that educates the public about alternatives to the death penalty.

The organization is backing the SAFE California Campaign to put an initiative on the November 2012 ballot that would remove the death penalty from the state judicial code.  It is also joining with the California NAACP on Jan. 14-16 for a “Weekend of Action” to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and gather signatures for the initiative.  

Woodford, the first guest in this year’s Jan Term Speaker Series at Saint Mary’s College, made the case against the death penalty on purely practical grounds, although she admits that as a Catholic, she was always morally opposed to execution, even when she dutifully carried out the sentence as warden of San Quentin from 1999 to 2004.

“The death penalty is costly, ineffective and fails to improve our lives in any way,” she argued.

To underscore the cost of executions, she cited a recent bipartisan report showing that California had spent $4 billion on capital punishment since 1978 to execute just 13 people – or $308 million per execution.

If the state continues at this pace, the report said, it will spend $9 billion by 2030 on executions -- $184 million more per inmate than the amount spent on those who receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Most of that money – an average of $200 million a year – would go to lawyers who argue the cases of death row criminals in the drawn-out appeals process.

“Are we utilizing our criminal justice money properly by spending it on the death penalty?” she asked.

The money used on capital punishment could be better spent on crime prevention, she argued, noting that 46 percent of homicides and 56 percent of rapes in California go unsolved. 

The proposed SAFE California Act has just three provisions. It would:

  • Eliminate the death penalty, preserving life without parole as the ultimate punishment.
  • Require that all life without parole prisoners work and pay compensation to their prisoners.
  • Allocate $100 million over three years to solve homicides and rapes.

Woodford was hired as a correctional officer at San Quentin in 1978, the same year that the death penalty was reimposed in California as a result of a voter-approved initiative. As a person who has spent her entire working life in the criminal corrections system, she says she cares deeply about public safety, and she is convinced that the death penalty is not making us any safer.

In response to critics who say that the death penalty is necessary to deter crime, Woodford pointed out that states that carry out executions, such as California and Texas, have higher crime rates than states with no death penalty.

But what about those who argue that life without the possibility of parole is insufficient retribution for the most heinous crimes? To these people, she offered just one suggestion: Visit a state prison and see what life there is really like. In her time as warden of San Quentin, she said, three inmates actually asked for the death penalty because they couldn’t face the harsh reality of life in prison.  

Woodford was most passionate when she spoke of the danger of executing innocent people who have been wrongly convicted. Recent advances in DNA testing, she pointed out, have exposed the criminal justice system’s long-buried secrets: people falsely confess to crimes, detectives cheat, witnesses make mistakes.

Woodford holding pic of Francisco CarrilloIn fact, she noted, 139 people on death rows have ultimately been exonerated. To illustrate the danger of making the ultimate life-or-death decision about another person, she held up the photo of a young man named Francisco Carrillo who was convicted of murder at age 16. After spending 20 years in prison, his sentence was overturned and he was released. He now works at Death Penalty Focus as a justice advocate.

Woodford argued that the death penalty also takes a toll on the families of victims. Far from offering a sense of closure, she said, it often keeps the wounds alive as the inmate exhausts every provision of the lengthy appeals process.

And it affects those who carry out executions, too. Reflecting on her own personal experience, she said: “Imagine going to work each morning knowing that you’re going to work to train yourself to kill a human being.” The personal cost was most clear, she said, as she observed the change in the way her son would greet her when she came home after an execution. When he was a young boy, he’d ask excitedly, “How did it go?” Later, as a teenager, he’d ask, with concern, “How are you?” 

Woodford believes the time is right for a voter initiative to eliminate the death penalty in California. She noted that the SAFE California Campaign has encountered very little political opposition so far, and she pointed to recent polls indicating that 55 percent of Californians would back life without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty.

Asked whether the death penalty would ever be outlawed on the national level, Woodford was surprisingly optimistic, saying she expected it to happen “in the next few years.”

“At some point,” she said, “we’ll get to a tipping point where the Supreme Court will say, it’s no longer OK to execute people.”

What you can do: SMC student Kendra Capece, cofounder of SUP/port Justice, is gathering signatures to put the SAFE California Act on the ballot in 2012. Learn more about the initiative at

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Watch a video of Jeanne Woodford talking about what it’s like to order an execution.

Photos by Jaycee Casalnuevo '13