Jerry Brown sidesteps death penalty discussion as California voters face choice

10/05/2012 12:00 AM

10/05/2012 6:45 PM

Two years ago, in the waning days of the gubernatorial campaign, Jerry Brown was asked why, given his moral reservations about the death penalty, he wouldn't try to stop it anymore.

As a young man, Brown had lobbied his father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, to stay a man's execution, and he vetoed death penalty legislation when he was governor before.

"I don't know," Brown said on an airplane between campaign rallies in the Central Valley. "You want to reinvent the world. But we have the world. And this is a matter that's been before the voters been before the Legislature. At this point in time, it's relatively settled."

It may still be. Though the margin is slight, a plurality of likely voters opposes a Nov. 6 ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, according to the Field Poll. Nevertheless, the measure, Proposition 34, is on the ballot – and Brown wants no part of it.

The Democratic governor has declined to say how he will vote on the death penalty or other ballot measures, and he is not expected to do so before Election Day. He said is focused solely on his own initiative to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners.

Brown's careful distance from abolishing the death penalty, a cause he once championed, reflects the caution of a governor who has grown more sensitive to the limitations and political hazards of his office than when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983.

"He's definitely more pragmatic on a lot of things," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "The standard Democratic playbook now is being tough on crime . I think it's wise for him just to take a pass."

Brown was 21 when, one night in 1960, he called his father to urge a temporary stay of execution for convicted rapist Caryl Chessman. Chessman was ultimately executed, but not before his father granted the temporary stay.

The decision was unpopular, and Pat Brown later said his political career suffered badly for it.

Seven years later, when Aaron Mitchell was executed at San Quentin State Prison, Jerry Brown participated in a vigil outside the prison, and 10 years after that, Brown vetoed legislation – overridden by the Legislature – to reinstate the death penalty.

He called it "a matter of conscience," a sentiment he expanded upon when he was asked while running for president in 1992 if his opposition to the death penalty was absolute.

"Yes," Brown said. "When someone is contained in a cage, then to bureaucratically, coldbloodedly snuff out their life, whether by poison or by electrocution or by gas, it seems, it doesn't seem right to me."

Peter Finnegan, a longtime friend of Brown's and his debate partner in high school, recalled holding candles outside San Quentin with Brown when they were young men.

They don't talk about the death penalty anymore.

"He just doesn't want to talk about it," said Finnegan, now a retired lobbyist and political activist. "You get nowhere talking about it, really, and it's kind of behind him, and everyone knows where he is, and that's that."

When Brown was governor before, Finnegan recalled, "we'd sit around until 2 in the morning (discussing) this stuff."

Now, Finnegan said, "he's just more focused . I just think he's so much more mature."

During the 2010 campaign, when Republican Meg Whitman called Brown "soft on crime," Brown pointed to his enforcement of the death penalty as state attorney general and said he would uphold the law.

"I filed 330 briefs in support of death penalty convictions. That's my job," Brown said. "There's probably no person in America who has fought to enforce the death penalty more than I have."

The death penalty was held unconstitutional for much of Brown's first two terms, and he has yet to face a clemency decision as governor.

His position has been made awkward, however, by the presence of the death penalty initiative. One day in April, Brown called it a "very, very important issue" and said he was glad the measure would be on the ballot, before saying that afternoon that his commitment to enforcing the death penalty was unwavering.

"I will carry out the law," Brown said, "without fear or failure and with fidelity to the will of the people."

A governor's endorsement can matter in an initiative campaign, but less so in one that involves a high-profile matter such as the death penalty, about which voters typically hold highly emotional, pre-existing beliefs.

Likely voters oppose Proposition 34, the measure to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, 45 percent to 42 percent, according to a recent Field Poll.

Natasha Minsker, who is managing the campaign for Proposition 34, said the campaign has not asked Brown for an endorsement and does not expect one.

"We know that he is focused on his initiative," she said, "so we have not asked him to weigh in."

Brown was with Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, at a bill-signing event in Los Angeles last month when he recognized Mitchell's mother, Sylvia Johnson, in the crowd.

Johnson, whom Brown appointed warden of the California Institution for Women in Southern California in the 1980s, said her reservations about the death penalty are similar to Brown's. His reluctance to speak publicly about it, she said, may have less to do with any political calculation than with a feeling of responsibility, however conflicted, to carry out the law.

"The law requires somebody to do it, and they're the end of the line," Johnson said. "I think he's being honest when he tells you that he doesn't believe in it but that he would carry it out."

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