Bethany Webb took part in a Tuesday night panel discussion on the death penalty with a front page newspaper clipping about the 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting hanging down from her side of the table. Laura Webb Elody, Bethany’s sister, was among the eight victims pictured. Hattie Stretz, their mother, was also shot but emerged as the sole survivor of mass murderer Scott Dekraai’s rampage at Salon Meritage.
“I paid a pretty big price to be up here,” Webb said during the discussion. She recalled sitting down to watch General Hospital on the afternoon of Oct. 12, 2011 when breaking news about the mass shooting interrupted the program. “I have a moment where I can pinpoint where my life changed.”
In a state where a majority of voters passed Prop. 66 in 2016 to speed up the death penalty process, it might seem reasonable to assume Webb to be among those favoring capital punishment, given what her family’s gone through. But at the “Hey, Meet Your DA” event organized by the PEOPLE’S (People Enraged Over Prosecutors and Law Enforcement) Coalition at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim, she railed against executions by the state in no uncertain terms. “The death penalty is saying that…the only way we can feel better, the only thing that we can do to make justice is to kill this person,” Webb said. “I reject that.”
With the Dekraai case, Judge Thomas Goethals took the death penalty off the table last year citing the Orange County District Attorney’s office and Orange County Sheriff’s Department unwillingness to comply with his orders surrounding use of a jailhouse informant program in what’s known as the OC Snitch Scandal. Goethals, who’s since been promoted to the California Court of Appeal, previously moved to recuse the DA’s office from the slam-dunk case. Instead of a date with Death Row, Dekraai was sentenced to eight consecutive life sentences. Webb took a stack of front page newspaper stories about the controversial murder trial and plopped them onto the table. She then lifted one with the picture of DA Tony Rackauckas, described as her “least-favorite person,” prominently featured.
“Open and shut case and they cheated!” Webb said. “Why? Because that’s what they do. They do it when they don’t need to and when they do need to.”
Tina Jackson, an activist with Angels for Justice Orange County, moderated the panel discussion. It also featured the insights of Geri Silva, founding member of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, and UC Irvine professor Keramet Reiter. Together they hit on key abolitionist viewpoints: that the death penalty is costly and ineffective as a deterrent. And, it’s immoral to boot. “That just adds to it, being able to kill people ‘legally,'” Silva said. “That pain doesn’t go away.”
With a yellow “Help wanted: Prosecutors to change the word” banner hanging from the table where panelists sat, professor Reiter honed in on that point in regards to the death penalty. “There’s a real power imbalance with prosecutors and it’s much harder to see,” she said. “They have all the incentives in the world to keep winning these cases. Thinking about the way the system is structured is really important in making sense of it.”
An American Civil Liberties Union of California fact sheet circulated at the event supported that contention with regards to OC by noting that the OCDA’s budget for the last fiscal year checked in at $138.8 million while the Public Defender’s Office, who take death penalty cases like Dekraai, is almost half the size with $74.1 million in funding.
Webb warned of a possible slew of executions in the year to come thanks to Prop. 66 while touting the DA candidacy of Democrat Brett Murdock. Before the night ended, she had one more damning criticism for Murdock’s incumbent opponent and his zeal for the death penalty.
“When the Orange County District Attorney can stand up and say ‘I want to start executing people quicker’ and yet he knows that a dozen people going back as far as 18 years were innocent,” Webb said, “I want you to tell me what separates that man from the man that killed 8 people the day that [he] killed my sister.”