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December 13, 2018

Six former governors urge outgoing California Gov Jerry Brown to commute 740 death sentences

This new opinion piece in the New York Times is authored by six former governors and is headlined "Jerry Brown Has the Power to Save 740 Lives. He Should Use It."  Th2 headline is itself a bit factually misleading because none of the persons on California's death row seem at risk of being executed anytime soon.  There has not been a single execution in California in more than a dozen years, and the next Governor seems unlikely to be eager to start up the state's machinery of death anytime soon.   Still, the six former governors — Richard Celeste of Ohio, John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Pat Quinn of Illinois, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico — make a notable pitch and here are excerpts:

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.... [W]e 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.

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 the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, 11 governors have granted clemency to death row prisoners in their states. They did not free them; they either reduced their sentences to life, declared a moratorium on executions or repealed their death penalty. We have all done one of these; so have Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in 2003; Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey in 2007; Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut in 2012; Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington in 2014; and Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania in 2015.

The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership. 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. We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system, and also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.

Mr. Brown has the power to commute the sentences of 740 men and women, to save 740 lives. 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. 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.

December 13, 2018 at 06:30 PM | Permalink


So the ex-governors’ idea of leadership is for Jerry Brown to commute all death sentences even though California voters have twice voted to reject a repeal of the death penalty (2012 and 2016) and voted to speed it up in 2016. I don’t call that leadership, it is arrogance and quite arguably an abuse of power.

It also could damage the court. California has a somewhat unique pardon and commutation constitutional provision. Any commutation for an offender who has been convicted of two or more felonies has to be approved by a majority of the California Supreme Court. If Jerry Brown commutes all death sentences, hundreds of them will have to have the commutation approved by the California Supreme Court. If the approval is not unanimous, then the public may look at it as a raw political power grab against the will of the people.

If unanimous, the public may still look at it as the abuse of power against the vote of 5he people, but all it takes is another Polly Klass to shift public opinion on criminal justice and those justices may be looking at recall or a challenged retention election.

Regardless, these ex-governors apparently have little respect for the voters. Pretty shocking, really.

Posted by: David | Dec 16, 2018 11:53:22 PM

Incisive comments, David, though I am not at all shocked that the anti-DP crowd is calling for a rejection of the views of a majority of voters as reflected in recent ballot outcomes. Lots of anti-DP folks believe, as Justice Thurgood Marshall argued in Furman, that people would turn against the death penalty if and whenever fully informed about how it actually operates. (And there are lots of empirical and anecdotal reasons why this claim can bear some weight.)

I find the so-called Marshall Hypothesis quite interesting both normatively and empirically, as it provides a means for folks to claim that they are respectfully of "democracy" while being disrespectful of polling and votes on support for the death penalty.

Posted by: Doug B | Dec 17, 2018 10:06:37 AM

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