Death Row inmate Michael Morales.
Credit: California Dept. of Corrections
The California Democratic Party is calling for abolition of the death penalty, defying conventional political wisdom and raising an issue that its candidate for governor might prefer to avoid.
Democratic leaders have previously passed resolutions opposing capital punishment, but the party says its records indicate it has never enshrined the position in its platform – the formal statement of its principles – until this year.
The platform, approved April 18 at the party’s convention in Los Angeles, includes a declaration that Democrats will “replace the death penalty with a term of permanent incarceration, which will serve to protect the public, provide swift and certain justice for victims’ families, and save the state an estimated $1 billion over the next five years.”
The Democrats’ action drew little attention until advocacy groups, who had pressed the party for years to oppose capital punishment, issued a release last week proclaiming victory.
The platform language would not require a Democratic governor to seek abolition of capital punishment or to grant clemency to everyone on Death Row, as governors in New Mexico, Illinois and New Jersey have done in recent years.
But it means that “being against the death penalty becomes the mainstream of the party,” said Christine Thomas of Sacramento, a member of the platform committee that drafted the provision.
“This suggests a major shift in thinking on the death penalty … that this is no longer a political liability,” said Stefanie Faucher, associate director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-capital punishment organization in San Francisco.
That assertion may be tested in November, when Attorney General Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, faces one of two pro-death penalty Republicans, businesswoman Meg Whitman or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Brown is a lifelong opponent of capital punishment who vetoed a death penalty bill as governor in 1977, calling it “a matter of conscience.” He was easily re-elected a year later while voters, on the same ballot, passed an initiative broadening the death penalty law.
In 1986, Californians removed Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other Brown appointees to the state Supreme Court after a campaign that focused on their votes to overturn death sentences.
Brown steers clear
Campaign spokesman Steve Glazer said Brown hasn’t changed his view of the death penalty but wasn’t involved in the Democratic platform discussions. He hasn’t raised the issue as a candidate, preferring to emphasize his crime-fighting credentials as the state’s top law enforcement official, whose job includes defending death sentences in court.
Asked about Brown’s position as a candidate, Glazer cited his declaration in 2006, while running for attorney general, that “the people of California can count on me to follow the law.”
Glazer also said Brown would not make opposition to capital punishment a litmus test for judges he appoints. By contrast, the last Democratic governor, Gray Davis, said he would choose only judges who favored the death penalty.
Nationally, the Democratic platform backed capital punishment from 1992 through 2000 but took no position in 2004, with death penalty opponent John Kerry heading the ticket. The platform in 2008, with Barack Obama as the candidate, said only that “the death penalty must not be arbitrary,” and that defendants should have competent lawyers and access to DNA testing.
California Democrats’ disavowal of capital punishment came despite polls that have consistently shown majorities supporting the death penalty. But those majorities have declined with revelations of death row defendants cleared by DNA evidence.
California has the nation’s largest Death Row, with more than 700 inmates, but has executed only 13 men since 1992, when the current law was implemented. Executions have been on hold since 2006, when a federal judge found that the state’s lethal injection methods could inflict prolonged and excruciating pain on a condemned inmate.
Opponents argue that the state can no longer afford the death penalty. They cite a 2008 report by a legislatively appointed commission, including law enforcement representatives, that found taxpayers were spending $137 million a year on a system plagued by uncontrolled costs.
Some prosecutors said the commission’s report was biased, and legislators have not acted on its recommendations to increase spending on legal representation and to narrow the death penalty law.
Republican candidates are likely to raise the capital-punishment issue this fall against Brown and against San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, another death penalty opponent, if she wins the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
The state Republican Party platform supports the law that imposes a death sentence for numerous categories of murders. Support for the death penalty has helped past Republican candidates such as George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, both elected twice as governor.
But state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, a death penalty opponent, said he thinks the issue has lost its potency. He said Brown’s opponents tried to use his position on executions against him in the 2006 election for attorney general, to no avail.
“I think people have respect for deeply held beliefs as long as you’re up front about them,” Burton said.
Death penaltyThe law:
California’s death penalty, adopted by voters in 1978, makes certain categories of “special circumstance” murders punishable by death or life without parole. They include murder during a rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping or carjacking; multiple murders; murder of a police officer, firefighter, prosecutor or judge; murder of a witness; murder for financial gain; and murder by lying in wait.
Death Row: California has 702 condemned prisoners – 685 men and 17 women – more than any other state.
Status: Executions in California have been on hold since February 2006, when a federal judge blocked the execution of convicted rapist-murderer Michael Morales, pictured, because of problems with the state’s lethal injection methods. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel later ruled that the procedures could inflict prolonged and excruciating pain, a violation of the Constitution. Prison officials submitted revised procedures last month to the state for approval before presenting them to Fogel to try to resume executions.
Executions in CaliforniaThirteen prisoners have been executed, two by gas and 11 by lethal injection, since 1992, when the state resumed executions after a 25-year lapse. The last person executed was Clarence Ray Allen, 76, right, who was put to death Jan. 17, 2006, for ordering three Fresno County murders from prison in 1980 while serving a life term for an earlier murder.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle