After 30 years as a journalist in California, I’ve come to believe that my industry can unintentionally distort the public’s understanding of the death penalty.
I’m not referring to political distortions rife in the state’s initiative process as voters consider two death penalty measures on the Nov. 8 ballot. (A yes on Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty; a yes on Proposition 66 would keep it and speed the appeals process and the time it takes to execute inmates).
No, I’m referring to distortion by omission in many media accounts of death penalty cases. As journalists, we often won’t describe the most gruesome details because they can violate the rules of decent public discourse.
We are mindful of subscribers reading the paper at their breakfast tables or online at their computers at work. So it’s unlikely we’re going to tell you the excruciating ways in which some people on California’s death row tortured their victims. It’s unlikely we’re going to tell you exactly how they derived emotional or sexual satisfaction from playing god over defenseless children who begged for mercy before being killed.
Four years ago, I wrote a column about Michael Lyons, 8, of Yuba City, who was killed in 1996 by a convicted sex offender named Robert Boyd Rhoades. I was familiar with the Lyons case because I covered it as a reporter.
In the column, I was as graphic as I could possibly be because I wanted readers to understand what that case was about as they considered Proposition 34, a 2012 ballot measure to repeal the death penalty (it eventually was rejected by voters).
However, the most distressing details about the torture and killing of that young boy were removed from my column by my editors. I don’t blame them for doing it. There are and should be rules of public discourse.
But what I know about the final hours of Michael Lyons’ life has given me nightmares for 20 years. I never met Michael, don’t know his family, but I’ve cried for that child more than once.
Michael would be in his late 20s if he were alive today. But he’s not alive. His killer is, though. Rhoades is on death row at San Quentin. Lyons wasn’t Rhoades’ only victim. Twelve years before he killed Lyons, Rhoades murdered Julie Connell, 18, of San Leandro.
Rhoades abducted Connell as she went to a Hayward park. We know from newspaper accounts that Rhoades tied Connell up and raped her before slashing her throat.
During the 2007 murder trial – made possible by DNA evidence linking Rhoades to Connell – a San Francisco Chronicle account of the evidence presented to jurors adhered to standard media practices when covering acts of violence: “(The prosecutor) described the damage to Lyons’ body in graphic detail ... just as the boy’s mother, Sandra Fuller, walked into court and took a seat in the gallery.”
What was the graphic detail? Readers usually don’t get that. Instead, they get toned-down descriptions and passive language.
The end result is that murders are described similarly in media accounts when, in fact, they are not all similar. They are all different based on the details. And the details that we don’t provide often are the ones that matter the most in cases when prosecutors seek the death penalty.
“These (cases) are the worst of the worst,” said McGregor Scott, a former Shasta County prosecutor and U.S. attorney.
They are also very rare. State statistics show that less than 2 percent of murders in California become death penalty cases.
Juries in California don’t handle capital punishment cases routinely. A defendant must be convicted of first-degree murder, and the details of the case have to meet a set of “special circumstances,” some approved by the Legislature and others by voters in previous elections.
Those circumstances include rape and torture. They include killing police officers and federal officials. They include killing witnesses to crimes, or killing people for a fee. The statute is invoked for people convicted more than once of murder.
The argument that innocent people may be put to death is suspect in California. Gov. Jerry Brown, a death penalty opponent, said this in 2012 when he was asked by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders if he had considered appointing a commutation panel for death row inmates: “As attorney general, I think the representation was good. I think people have gotten exquisite due process in the state of California. ... To think that they’ve missed anything like they have in some other states, I have not seen any evidence of it. None.”
No one feels good about the death penalty. So why support it? Because some rare cases are that heinous. Because the law always has recognized punishment proportional to the crime. Past efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in California, the bluest of states. It happened four years ago, and a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed that more than half of the respondents opposed abolishing the death penalty. To be fair, a Field Poll showed narrow support for Proposition 62. But the Field Poll showed Proposition 34 winning by seven points in 2012 before the measure lost by four points on election night.
Part of the ambivalence that people feel about the death penalty is because endless delays stopped executions years ago and made a punch line of death penalty convictions. How would people feel if those delays were addressed?
It’s easy for Silicon Valley millionaires to fund the latest effort to repeal the death penalty because they – like most of us – are untouched by the horror known only by the families whose loved ones were killed in unspeakable crimes. It’s easy to remain detached from the details of these crimes when they are too graphic to be shared publicly.
You have to sit in a courtroom and listen to the evidence in these crimes – and to witness the anguish of family members of victims – to truly understand why the death penalty can be an appropriate punishment for the worst criminals among us.
A yes vote on Proposition 66 will speed up the appeals process and clean up the protocols for dispensing lethal injections. If those two issues were addressed, death penalty cases would not take 25 years to resolve.
You might be wondering what happens if both measures pass? The one with the higher vote total becomes law.
I would never presume to tell you how to vote, but I am voting no on Proposition 62 and yes on Proposition 66. There are 19 men on death row whose legal appeals have all been exhausted. The families of their victims deserve justice. And some punishments do fit the crime.