While death penalty opponents were mostly excited by Governor Gavin Newsom’s surprise decision earlier this month to put a moratorium on the death penalty, a recent look at op-eds and editorials shows that this decision will be controversial.
The LA Times editorial board agrees that the death penalty is wrong, they support the moratorium, but they believe ordering local prosecutors not to pursue the death penalty is a step too far.
They write, while “an argument can be made that he has the legal right to do this,” they believe, “Ordering elected prosecutors to not pursue the death penalty in murder cases runs counter to that constitutional responsibility.”
They note: “The governor is within his power and rights to grant reprieves for whatever reason he finds compelling — that, too, is in the Constitution. That’s what Newsom did on March 13, effectively granting a reprieve from execution for all the current inmates on the state’s death row. He deserves praise for that bold move.”
But they add that “telling local prosecutors what to do is something else entirely — it would negate the law by preventing death penalty cases from being pursued in the first place.”
In the meantime, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law, in the Sacramento Bee writes that “thanks to Gov. Newsom, California has joined an increasing number of states in halting executions.”
Citing the risk “that innocent people will be put to death,” the governor also cited “a study by the National Academy of Sciences that estimated that one out of every 25 people on death row is innocent.”
Governor Newsom explained that this “means if we move forward executing 737 people in California, we will have executed roughly 30 people that are innocent.”
The professor cites the 1994 decision by former Justice Harry Blackmun who famously renounced capital punishment, writing that “from this day forward I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” In his view, “the death penalty experiment had failed” and it was “delusion” to think that capital punishment in America could be consistent with the Constitution.
Writes the professor, “We should applaud Gov. Newsom for recognizing this.”
Senator John Moorlach, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Journal, accusing Governor Newsom of disrespecting not just voters, “but murder victims and their families as well.”
He asks, “What do you say to someone who’s finding out from a press conference that their loved one’s killer won’t face justice?” He argues, “Death row inmates are not ordinary criminals. They are kidnappers. They are cop-killers. They are rapists who murdered their victims. These are the monsters Governor Newsom is protecting.”
He adds that “if there are innocent people on death row, Newsom should propose in his budget an amount of money to advance a quick appeals process for all of them. If any are proven innocent, then let’s get them out of prison as soon as possible. For the rest, expedite the execution instead of dragging it on for years or decades.”
“The governor closed the execution chamber, but the machinery cranks on,” John Mills writes also in the Daily Journal.
He notes that AG Xavier Becerra called Governor Newsom’s reprieve “a bold new direction in California’s march toward perfecting our search for justice.”
“I agree,” says Mr. Mills. But he notes, “Becerra’s statement is remarkable because there is so much more that he could do, large and small, to support that effort beyond defending the governor’s decree.”
For instance, he could admit in court in the death penalty cases his office defends that, in California, “death sentences are unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color.” Or he could confess “other defects, any one of which would acknowledge the unconstitutionality of California’s death penalty regime.”
Joe Mathews in the Ventura County Star writes: “California’s death penalty is dead! Long live California’s death penalty!” He continues: “That lede isn’t a contradiction. In our state, the death penalty has long existed simultaneously as a grave problem and necessary tool.
“California’s death penalty was a symbolic expression of frustration at violent crime and (to) support crime victims,” he continues. “The death penalty also was an enormous headache for the criminal justice system, since capital cases consumed resources and slowed the courts with endless appeals. These costs are why so many wanted to do away with the death penalty.
“But these same costs are also why the death penalty had real value. California’s prison system, because it exists in the dark, is a scandal,” he writes, noting “the death penalty provided a rare source of accountability, and attention, for the prison system.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune asked readers to weigh in on the death penalty – and gave them up to 500 words. They note, “In all, readers sent us about 12 essays this week, three supporting capital punishment, nine advocating against the death penalty.”
As one reader put it: “The bottom line is the death penalty is an emotionally charged punishment that serves no purpose other than to temporarily slake the vengeful desires of family and friends. After capital punishment has been administered, the reality sets in that your loved still isn’t coming back. The emptiness will always remain.”
Another put it this way: “Capital punishment sets a bad example. It is based on the premise that there are certain persons who deserve to die and it’s perfectly alright to go ahead and kill them. This is morally indistinguishable from common murder. If an ordinary citizen feels that someone has done them a serious injury and decides to do in the offender, the state says, as far as morality is concerned, you got that right. The only problem is that we, the state, have a license to kill and you do not. What murder amounts to, then, is merely killing without a license.”
A third put it this way: “Today, more than ever, we are not invested in preventing the causes of crime. Many come from communities of poverty, from families that do not care about them and from institutions such as schools and communities that do not recognize their needs for interventions. The worst criminals deserve our mercy and compassion for the wrongs done to them, not the death penalty.”
Jennifer Eberhardt, in the LA Times, writes: “Bias in the justice system is real, and the death penalty reveals it.”
She notes that “in capital cases where the victim is white, defendants are significantly more likely to receive a death sentence than when the victim is black.
“But the truth is more complicated, and more insidious, than a simple black/white divide. When black men are judged by juries in capital cases, their sentences can hinge on just how black they are perceived to be. Those with darker skin, wider noses and thicker lips are subject to far harsher sentencing than lighter-skinned blacks with less prominent, so-called black features.
“In research I led in 2006, looking ‘more black’ more than doubled the chances that a defendant would receive the death penalty. But only when the victims were white.”
Finally, the NY Times Editorial board writes: “The California governor’s moratorium on executions in the state should signal the demise of a barbaric practice.”
They note that “this act of executive mercy recognizes the extreme failures of the death penalty.” They point to both state and national trends and conclude: “In due time, this growing chorus against a system of punishment that has been shown to be discriminatory, prone to error and ineffective as a crime-fighting tool should spell its demise once and for all.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting