On the mild Monday afternoon of Sept. 23, 1912, readers of The Sacramento Bee picked up their newspapers to find a rhetorical question on Page 6. The question, posed as the headline above a piece written by the paper's editor and co-owner, was this:
"Why not give hanging a fair show in California?"
The editorial by C.K. McClatchy was spurred by the case of a Los Angeles man named George Figueroa, who had shot his wife to death, after beating her senseless, because she refused to have sex with one of his friends. Despite the savagery of the crime, acting Gov. A.J. Wallace commuted Figueroa's death sentence to life in prison. Wallace's reasoning was that Figueroa's attorney was inexperienced and incompetent, and thus the defendant was not given "a fair show." McClatchy was outraged:
"What, with the technicalities permitted in the court to gag justice, and the attitude of our Supreme Court in sustaining and canonizing those quibbles for the protection of cold-blooded murderers, it is not often a guilty fiend is brought within the shadow of the gallows . It strikes The Bee the people are not being given 'a fair show' the relatives of the butchered are not being given 'a fair show' this game is being played with stacked cards in the interest of a hellish murderer let capital punishment be given 'a fair show' and then let us see if it does not have a deterrent effect on murderers."
In the 100 years since that afternoon's indignant blast, and in the 55 years of the paper's existence before it, no other issue has belied The Bee's liberal editorial reputation more than capital punishment. On nearly every aspect, from its effectiveness as a deterrent to its constitutionality, the paper has supported the death penalty as the ultimate penalty for criminal acts in California albeit not always as enthusiastically as in 1912.
"Where an individual is to be executed," The Bee cautioned in 1984, after the state Supreme Court struck down a jury instruction that some regarded as prejudicial to death penalty defendants, "the execution serves justice only if it takes place in a context of absolute fairness and impartiality."
While executions often, but not always, legal were relatively common in California throughout its first two decades as a state, it wasn't until 1872 that capital punishment was formally incorporated into the Penal Code. It was an action heartily applauded by James McClatchy, a founding editor of the paper and the scion of the family that would dominate The Bee and its media offspring. More than once, McClatchy editorialized that no one who had been executed had ever committed another crime.
In fact, during the first half of the paper's life, it didn't even quibble much when executions were carried out by someone other than the state. In 1920 and again in 1933, The Bee viewed lynchings that occurred at Santa Rosa and San Jose, respectively, as regrettable, but understandable.
"It was lawless. Of course it was," C.K. McClatchy wrote in November 1933, after two men were taken by a mob from the Santa Clara County jail and hanged. "But when right and common decency have been throttled for so long, and law itself seems to be dying, then it may be that 'murder takes the angel shape of justice.' "
The paper's views toward capital punishment during its early years were hardly unpopular in California or most of the rest of the nation. At the height of the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, nine states abandoned the death penalty. But by the 1930s, all but one of the nine had restored it. California Gov. James "Sunny Jim" Rolph even referred to the 1933 San Jose lynching as "the best lesson that California has ever given to the country."
The paper was also unswayed by gender when it came to capital punishment. In November 1941, Sacramento crime boss Juanita "the Duchess" Spinelli became the first woman to die in the state's gas chamber. Spinelli and two associates had been convicted of killing another gang member to keep him quiet about a robbery and murder they had committed in San Francisco. The Bee applauded Gov. Culbert Olson's refusal to grant clemency to Spinelli.
"The statutory law rightly makes no sex distinction," the paper noted. "Nor does the moral law. Governor Olson is to be commended for standing by his honest convictions in this case and letting the law take its course."
But the paper was not at all commendatory in February 1960, when Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown temporarily stayed the execution of Caryl Chessman, a career robber and rapist who nonetheless had never killed anyone. Brown, a Bee favorite, wanted the Legislature to consider a bill abolishing the death penalty before Chessman's sentence was carried out.
In an editorial headlined "Death Penalty Session Would Be Grave Error," The Bee accused Brown of attempting to pressure legislators into sparing Chessman. "He is entitled to his views on capital punishment," the paper said, " (but) it is to be hoped the governor will not permit his personal feelings to transcend reason. To do so could turn out to be the biggest mistake of his administration."
By the 1970s, the paper's editorial stance on the death penalty had begun to sound a bit less martial. On Feb. 18, 1972, the state Supreme Court struck down California's death penalty law as a violation of the state constitution's "cruel or unusual punishment" provision. Instead of criticizing the court's ruling, The Bee called for a ballot measure that would let voters decide if capital punishment should be embedded in the state constitution, rather than stand as it had previously existed as a mere statute:
"The California Supreme Court has spoken on capital punishment, and properly so. Now The Bee believes the people should be heard. While calling for a vote of the people, The Bee, which consistently has favored the death penalty as a deterrent to murder, will have no part in court baiting or any other maneuver to undermine the courts. A matter of such importance to society must be debated in a reasoned manner and voted upon after each voter in the state has searched his conscience. The Bee asks no more and no less."
But the paper's 1972 enthusiasm for a voters' decision on the fate of the death penalty had waned by the summer of 1977.
In an Aug. 13 editorial, the paper applauded the Legislature's override of Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of a bill restoring the death penalty. "In doing so, they responded to the will of the people," the editorial said. "Further, they helped avoid an emotional and divisive initiative campaign in the 1978 election."
Only they didn't. A death penalty initiative drive was launched anyway, and resulted in Proposition 7 on the November 1978 ballot. Somewhat surprisingly, given its consistent support of the death penalty, The Bee opposed the measure as badly written and unnecessary:
" As a practical matter, it is so flawed that it would very likely result in fewer death sentences than would occur under California's existing and adequate death penalty statutes. California's existing death penalty (was) framed with the greatest of care to meet the strict conditions laid down by the California Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court. It is, in fact, a "tough" capital punishment statute. It would be a grave mistake to replace it with the defective and misleading verbiage of Proposition 7."
Voters thought otherwise. The measure passed by an almost 3-to-1 margin. And by 1992, The Bee had apparently come to terms with the "flawed" state law.
"The true test of California's reactivated death penalty will not be in this unique event," the paper predicted in commenting on the execution that year of murderer Robert Alton Harris, who became the first California inmate to be executed since 1967, "but in the long term, when execution eventually becomes a routine, unremarkable and certain punishment for the most heinous crimes against society."
Seven years later, however, the paper argued that there should be exceptions for even "the most heinous crimes." In May 1999, The Bee appealed to Gov. Gray Davis to spare the life of Manuel Babbitt, who had been convicted of the brutal murder of a 78-year-old Sacramento woman during a burglary. Babbitt was a Vietnam War veteran who had been wounded, and there was evidence he suffered from severe mental illness at the time of the murder.
"Babbitt should spend the rest of his life in prison for the brutal crimes he committed," The Bee argued. "But his life history, his service to his country and his mental illness are compelling reasons to spare his life. The governor, himself a Vietnam vet, is the only person who can do that."
The governor didn't. Babbitt was one of 13 convicts that California executed between 1992 and 2006. Then, in December 2006, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the state's administration of executions by lethal injection was flawed. The Bee agreed with the judge. "No matter whether one supports or opposes the death penalty," it editorialized, "California's administration of it has been disgraceful. Before the state executes another person, it needs to be fixed."
Two years later, the paper commented on the findings of a special state commission on California's death penalty, and singled out two "intriguing alternatives" outlined by the panel. One would reduce the circumstances under which a criminal could be executed. The other would simply replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
"Ending the death penalty is a moral decision, and any attempt to eliminate it would have to be decided by voters," the July 6, 2008, editorial concluded. "Yet the commission has given lawmakers and the public essential information to consider options. The status quo is not a responsible option. Let the debate begin."