Jewish S.F. death-penalty foe wins award

During a summer day in China, the residents of Hoy-Pay village scurried to the outskirts of town to watch seven kidnappers get executed. Despite the blistering heat, everyone arrived on time to see the bandits kneeling and begging for mercy. But instead of mercy, a policeman beat each of the culprits with an electric prod. Crawling and wincing with pain, the criminals were immediately shot to death.

Most Americans may find such legal proceedings barbaric, but Madeleine Haas Russell, co-founder and president of the Columbia Foundation, said that the executions held in U.S. prisons are also brutal and must be stopped.

"The eye-for-an-eye policy leaves everyone blind," she said. And when it comes to "state-sanctioned killings, the United States rides in the same boat with China, Iraq and Iran."

For her efforts in trying to abolish the death penalty in the United States, Russell recently received a dozen roses and a 1997 Human Rights Award from Death Penalty Focus of California during a luncheon held in San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel.

The native San Franciscan, a civic and Jewish community leader for six decades, is a descendant of jeans magnate Levi Strauss. "My grandfather was his favorite nephew," said Russell, who served as a board member of the Levi Strauss Foundation for 10 years.

She is currently the chair of "Israel at 50," a joint project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and other Jewish groups. She has served on the board of the JCF and is active in a number of Jewish and civic philanthropic organizations.

Russell and her brother, the late William Haas, founded the Columbia Foundation in 1940. It gives funds to a number of organizations, including those fighting the death penalty.

Susan Clark, its executive director, said Russell "has been a long-term donor and supporter of the movement to abolish the death penalty, both personally and through the Columbia Foundation — whether it's speaking out to legislators or working with nonprofit advocacy organizations [such as] Amnesty International, Project to Abolish the Death Penalty or Death Penalty Focus of California."

During the ceremony, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Oakland mayoral hopeful Jerry Brown sat at the same table with Russell, honoring her for her bravery in the battle against the death penalty.

"Madeleine Haas Russell is very special and when it comes to being one of San Francisco's caretakers, Madeleine Haas Russell stands out," said Willie Brown. "This city is grateful to have Madeleine Haas Russell live and spend a 35-year career in public life."

Jerry Brown, the former California governor, said, "The government does not have the moral right to decide who lives and dies. The death penalty is just another case on how human beings kill one another." His father, the late Gov. Edmund G. Brown, was one of the founding directors of Death Penalty Focus of California.

Speaking at the award presentation, Russell said that capital punishment does not prevent crime and that the public lust for vengeance makes life cheap. When the government executes people, it confuses many into believing that killing is permissible.

Actor Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus of California, said, "Capital punishment is there for people with no capital."

He also said that race plays an important role in who is sentenced to die. Pointing to the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case of McCleskey vs. Kemp, Farrell said that in Georgia someone who kills a white person is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who kills a black person.

According to Death Penalty Focus of California statistics for 1997, 479 men and eight women nationally are on death row; when they're executed, their death certificates list homicide as the cause of death.

In addition, a 1993 California study reveals that each death penalty case costs about $1.25 million more than a regular murder case or one involving a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

"The best thing is to incarcerate [dangerous criminals] and throw away the key," Russell said.