Governors Press Jerry Brown to Grant Clemency to 740 People on Death Row in California

Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

California has not executed anyone in nearly 13 year – January 17, 2006 – when it executed 76 year old Clarence Ray Allen, who was 76 years old, legally blind, diabetic, and used a wheelchair.  Since then there has been a moratorium on executions, two failed propositions to end the death penalty, and a successful proposition (Prop 66) that speeds up death penalty appeals and executions.

While that measure has survived legal challenges, reformers worry that speeding up appeals will lead to innocent people being executed, as the typical wrongful conviction exoneration could be 10, 15, 20 and sometimes up to 30 or 40 years after conviction.

In yesterday’s New York Times, six former governors wrote an op-ed calling on Governor Jerry Brown to follow in their footsteps and grant clemency to death row prisoners – all 740 that are currently sitting on death row.

The six were: Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya.

They write: “Among a governor’s many powers, none is more significant than signing a death warrant. It’s a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were.

“But we became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.”

This isn’t the first notion of this possibility.

In 2016, Quin Denvir, a former state public defender, shortly before his death, wrote that he has been “haunted by the death penalty” since 1977.  He wrote, “Now, in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, I would like to see California stop its, as (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Harry) Blackmun put it, tinkering with the machinery of death … I would respectfully ask you to exercise your gubernatorial clemency power to commute the sentences of the women and men on death row to life without possibility of parole.”

In August, the Orange County Register published an op-ed which noted that prosecutors fear that Governor Brown will use his power to commute the sentence of everyone on death row.

Writes John Phillips, “Brown and his anti-death penalty cronies could very well be in collusion with the California Supreme Court to thwart the will of the people and effectively end the death penalty in the Golden State — something Jerry has been trying to do since his dad was governor back in the 1950s and 1960s.”

In late November, the LA Times Editorial Board argued “the death penalty is impracticable and unusable. But it’s also unfair and immoral.”  Further, they believe there is “credible evidence that innocent people have been executed, often as a result of convictions gained through prosecutorial misconduct or perjury.”

The Editorial called on Governor Brown to work with incoming Governor Gavin Newsom “to revive the abolition movement here in California.”

They write: “Brown should make a forceful statement that reflects what he has said is in his heart: The death penalty is wrong. Brown, who has generally been generous with commutations, can take further steps as well; he could, for instance, begin the process of commuting the death sentences of people whose crimes were committed when they were young, before their brains, their judgment and their impulse control were fully developed.”

Governor Newsom they write should work with “the new Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature to place a fresh anti-death penalty initiative on a future ballot, then use his bully pulpit to persuade Californians that it is not only fiscally but morally necessary to abandon the barbaric system.”

The six governors in the meantime, note that “His overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system has ensured his legacy as one of the most courageous and effective governors in California’s history.”

They point to the elimination of cash bail, prohibiting incarceration of children under 12 and the trying of children under 16 as adults and prohibiting prosecutors from charging accomplices with first-degree murder.

They write: “Given this good work, we know it must weigh on Mr. Brown that, unless he acts soon, he will leave behind 740 men and women on California’s death row. It’s a staggering number and our hearts go out to him. From a humanitarian perspective, it is horrifying to imagine executing that many humans. As a practical matter, it’s beyond comprehension.”

The add: “Even the most ardent proponents of capital punishment would shudder at composing a plan to execute 740 people. Would California’s citizens allow mass executions? If the state were to execute a single person every day, people would still be waiting on death row after two years.”

Since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated, 11 governors have granted clemency to death row prisoners in their states.  This act did not free them.  They either reduced the sentence to life, declared a moratorium on executions or repealed their death penalty.

The Governors write: “Mr. Brown now has the chance to do what others in our ranks have done after they became aware of the price paid for taking a human life.”

Governor Brown has the ability to commute the sentences of these 740 men and women or “he can declare a moratorium on the death penalty and give Governor-elect Gavin Newsom the time he will need to figure out how to end a system broken beyond repair.”

They add, “Such an act will take political will and moral clarity, both of which Mr. Brown has demonstrated in the past. In the interest of his legacy, the people of California need his leadership one more time before he leaves office.”

What will Governor Brown do?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Howard P

    Why is it up to Brown?  Newsome, if he has the “jewels”can easily commute the sentences his first day in office.  That would be a more honest approach…

    1. David Greenwald

      That would certainly a bold move for Newsom. I think the general thinking is that Brown has the historical death penalty legacy that he could cement with this move. I’m certainly not one who thinks that Newsom is going to come in with that kind of cajones.

      1. Howard P

        C’mon… it’s a moral and ethical cop-out to use lame-duck status to “cover” for an action that either is right, or isn’t.

        A blanket commutation is questionable… targeted commutation might well be a proper moral and ethical decision… but one, the person who does it, should be prepared to take full responsibility for, not just because they are about to “retire”.

        All of us are under the sentence of ‘death’… just a matter of when and how… that’s a fact… society allows many to have no housing, food, medical care when they face it… many are innocent… society (including ‘state funded’) allows/supports a procedure where some are ‘executed’ prior to to their first breath… considered “not human”… as some view those convicted of heinous crimes.

        I really don’t get where someone can oppose the death penalty and support abortion (although there are situations where that can actually be a pro-life thing)… and the converse… those who support the death penalty, and oppose abortion.

        A conundrum, to be sure.

    1. David Greenwald

      The issue of appeals is not to be dismissed. However given Prop 66, that calculus has probably shifted. Moreover, the governor and legislature can address that problem legislatively.

  2. Jeff M

    Understanding how the liberals progressive mind works, next up will be opposition to life without parole, and then next we will hear ideas for more “progress” for opposition to prison in general.

    Oh, and those felons should be able to vote, right?

    This trajectory happens because the liberal progressive does not develop opinions from a holistic, pragmatic nor comprehensive perspective… they develop opinions based on strong feelings rooted in a relative assessment of fairness and harm.   These opinions become a new “truth” even though they are really only half-truths… half-circle arguments that land on great political symbolism of some heart muscle without incorporating the brain’s assessment of the great law of unintended consequences.

    And when the great law of unintended consequences occurs, those liberal progressives shrug off responsibility… because they are righteous in fundamental cause and because the media is of them, by them and for them.

    Conservatives in this state are unable to stop the “progressive” trajectory.    All we can do is to pray for the future inevitable victims of the unintended consequences.

    1. David Greenwald

      I would point out that conservatives are increasingly concerned about the death penalty too and some of the moratoriums put on it have been by Republican governors.

      I do increasingly believe that life without parole is often unnecessary. We can evaluate better in real time if someone should be released years down the line.

    2. Don Shor

      Oh, and those felons should be able to vote, right?

      Certainly, except those felons convicted of murder and sexual offenses. As in Florida, where the right to vote was restored by a margin of 64.55% to 35.45%, with those exceptions.

    3. Jeff M

      Exhibits A and B above.

      Agree that some Republicans are against the death penalty… mostly because of the cost of the legal process with zillions of appeals and that liberals still claim is not enough to prevent wrongful death… which rarely occurs despite the myth.

      1. Don Shor

        I don’t oppose the death penalty, nor do I oppose life without parole for some crimes. But I do think felons in most categories can regain the right to vote. Sorry I don’t fit neatly into your binary world view. Note that the vote in Florida was pretty much a landslide on the felon-vote issue, indicating a large number of R’s must have supported it.

      2. Eric Gelber

        Just curious:

        What do you mean by “rarely”? How many wrongful executions would it take for you to characterize them as not “rarely” occurring?

        How many wrongful executions would it take for those Republicans in opposition to the death penalty to oppose it because of the value of those lives rather than because of the cost of the legal process?

        1. Keith O

          Just curious:
          What do you mean by “rarely”? How many wrongful executions murders by illegal aliens would it take for you to characterize them as not “rarely” occurring?
          How many wrongful executions  murders by illegal aliens would it take for those Republicans Democrats in opposition to the death penalty illegal immigration to oppose it because of the value of those lives rather than because of the cost of the legal process securing our borders?

        2. Jeff M

          Good job Keith.  There is so much hypocrisy in these positions that it is hard to take them seriously.

          What do you mean by “rarely”? How many wrongful executions would it take for you to characterize them as not “rarely” occurring?

          Eric, challenges like this in absolute extremes are an indication that the challenger lacks factual arguments.

          There is no conclusive proof that any one of the more than one thousand inmates executed in modem times was innocent.  Including Roger Coleman who’s post mortem DNA matched that of the killer.   In all cases where the death penalty abolitionist activists fund a character to exploit that person on death row was a very bad person and they had numerous appeals that failed.

          I agree that no reasonable person wants any innocent person executed… no mater what political orientation.  But for many conservatives it is a weighed opinion that includes the safety of the public over the rights of the convicted… but a cost-benefit assessment for options to secure that safety.   If it is cheaper to keep a death row inmate behind bars for life, then so be it… as long as he never goes free.

    1. Dave Hart

      Thanks for the post, Don.  That’s a lot of people.  I don’t see how even 10% of these people (75) will ever be executed.  Even thinking of that is creepy because we know that at least one of that 10% is wrongfully convicted based on the data from the Innocence Project

      Moreover, when the state legally kills someone, it says killing is okay.  No wonder some people who are already a little off figure it’s okay to kill someone who “deserves” it. As in good parenting, the state should lead by example.

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