Moratorium Blocked by California Legislature

By: Somerset Stevens

The first attempt to put a moratorium on executions in California since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978 has been blocked in the state assembly. The bill, which would have suspended executions for two years, was passed out of one legislative committee, but legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee put the bill on hold, effectively killing it for the rest of the legislative session.

News reports indicated that while Republicans opposed the bill outright, Democrats wanted to delay its consideration for election reasons--they didn’t want to have to defend a vote for a moratorium while campaigning. The bill’s sponsor said he would reintroduce the legislation after primary elections in June.

The legislation would have barred executions until the results are in from a comprehensive study of the death penalty conducted by the Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, which was set up in 2004.

California has the largest death row in the country, with nearly 650 prisoners. But despite a growing awareness of the injustice and brutality of state-sponsored murder, and the falling popularity of capital punishment, executions are on the increase. California did not kill a single prisoner from 1976 until 1992. Since then, 13 people have been put to death. The last two were Stan Tookie Williams in December, followed by the execution of Clarence Ray Allen, a feeble and legally blind senior citizen who turned 76 one day before he was put to death.

And now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is preparing to execute another prisoner in February--Michael Morales. According to Natasha Minsker, director of death penalty policy for the ACLU of Northern California, at Morales’ trial, “less than $2,000 in expenses were approved by the court, whereas for his co-defendant, Ricky Ortega, the court approved more than $80,000. While the case has been on appeal for the last 20 years, the courts have authorized an additional $2,000 for investigation and turned down all other requests.”

It is almost certain that the commission’s study will reveal deep institutional flaws, and while the study is underway, it is unconscionable that executions continue. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s callousness toward every request of clemency and the inaction of California’s elected bodies serve to underscore just how necessary grassroots organizing and mass mobilization are to this fight.

The creation of the commission was a hard-won victory that opponents of the death penalty need to build on as we continue the fight in California and every other state that legalizes lynching.