California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is joined by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a news conference at Homeboy Industries on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 in downtown Los Angeles. As rival Democratic candidates for governor, Newsom and Villaraigosa spent months talking about their differences. With the race behind them, they can’t stop trading compliments as Newsom begins a fall campaign against Republican John Cox. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
On January 2, 1889 a 23-year-old laborer named Samuel Reyland waylaid and battered to death Emma Jane Davies near South Petherton, Somerset, UK. The child was returning home from a neighboring farm with a milk can, it was the milk can Reyland used to kill her. Reyland was arrested on January 4. He went to trial on February 20 and the trial lasted two days. He was convicted (the jury was out for one hour and fifteen minutes) and sentenced to death. Reyland was hanged at Shepton Mallet Prison on March 13, 1889. A total of seventy days elapsed from the murder of Emma Jane and Reyland taking a long drop with a short rope.
In 1980, four people were murdered in California by an ex-con. An investigation revealed that the murders had been carried out at the behest of Claude Ray Allen, a prisoner serving a life sentence for a 1974 murder. When Allen entered the death chamber at San Quentin at 12:20 a.m. on January 17, 2006, he was 76 years old, blind, and confined to wheelchair by diabetes.
Why is this relevant? Yesterday, California governor Gavin Newsom announced he would sign an order imposing an official moratorium on California’s use of the death penalty. I say “official” because Allen was the last man executed in California and there are 737 men and women now in limbo on death row there. (Note the article at the link says 747 but that number has changed.)
In an executive order Mr. Newsom plans to sign on Wednesday, he will do three things: grant reprieves to the inmates currently on death row — they will still be under a death sentence, but not at risk of execution; close the execution chamber at San Quentin prison; and withdraw the state’s lethal injection protocol, the formally approved procedure for carrying out executions.
“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” Mr. Newsom plans to say on Wednesday, according to prepared remarks. “In short, the death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”
On the one hand, I applaud Newsom’s decision. The death penalty in America has become a travesty. Once we moved from the idea of capital punishment as some super special punishment rather than as A punishment, we were on the slippery slope of making it irrelevant. I’m not convinced that it deters. But I am convinced there are actions that are so heinous that forfeiture of live is entirely appropriate. And, given our love of long prison sentences (another pet peeve of mine), what do you do to a prisoner serving life without parole who kills a corrections officer given that we are about five years from seeing solitary confinement and the whole supermax system ruled unconstitutional? Give them double life plus? I’m also very skeptical of our system of prosecution where crimes are wildly overcharged to extort guilty pleas and where it is shown time and again that many, if not most, prosecutors are perfectly happy to kill you if it gets them good headlines.
This, by the way, is not a California problem.
Gary Alvord, a Florida inmate who spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, died on May 19 of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years ago, on April 9, 1974.
A cultural divide in the nation has created a gridlock where the death penalty is supported by majorities of voters but the elites oppose it and invent endless rules to make endless appeals and stays the way that it is done.
Newsom, I think, takes a gutless way out of this. He merely grants reprieves to the former denizens of death row. The death sentence remains in effect. The moral thing to do would have been to commute all the sentences to life in prison and close the books on the issue for the foreseeable future. Newsom, however, knows that Californians would not support this so he takes the weasely way out.
I think the time of the death penalty has come and gone. It remains as an artifact that lets prosecutors threaten prisoners and which is so infrequently carried out that it can’t possibly deter potential criminals or even satisfy the demands or retributive justice. It is a shame that an avowed opponent of capital punishment, like Newsom, can’t muster the huevos to do the right thing. But he is a Democrat, so that is kind of baked in.
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