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