September 16, 2012

Stuart Leavenworth: Why we changed stand on death penalty

Each workday at The Bee, members of the editorial board gather and decide what editorials we will pursue for the next day's page or the pages to come. Often, in deliberating on topics we haven't commented upon for a while, we ask ourselves this question:

Each workday at The Bee, members of the editorial board gather and decide what editorials we will pursue for the next day's page or the pages to come. Often, in deliberating on topics we haven't commented upon for a while, we ask ourselves this question:

What did we say in the past?

We ask this question because readers expect an editorial page to stay true to its convictions. If you saw us zigzagging down the highway of opinion – saying one thing one day and another the next – we'd have a credibility car wreck.

Yet there have been times when The Bee has stopped and taken a U-turn, reversing a longstanding editorial position. One of the biggest came last week, when we ended the editorial board's long-standing support for California's death penalty.

We didn't make this change lightly. It came after years of debate and discussion that preceded the current makeup of the editorial board. It came after many months of research and meetings with legal scholars and groups on both sides of the death penalty debate.

The position we took – that the death penalty is unworkable and unfixable in California – was crafted with several considerations in mind. We wanted to respect those Californians – and previous members of the editorial board – who believe that executions are a just punishment for convicted murderers who commit the most horrible of crimes.

But we also wanted to make a forceful argument that there is no way in California to carry out that punishment swiftly, equitably and in accordance with our laws and constitution. As we stated in the first installment of our editorials, "The death penalty in California has become an illusion, and we need to end the fiction – the sooner the better."

The response to the series has broken down along some interesting lines. Some legal scholars and readers praised the series and the practical argument we posed against continuing capital punishment in California.

But that same argument disappointed many opponents of capital punishment.

They asked why we did not take a moral stand against executions, arguing they are a barbaric form of punishment that makes a mockery of a society that claims to abhor violence.

There's a reason we didn't take such a stand. The editorial board was divided. Some members have moral objections to the death penalty. Others do not.

Despite that divide, there was one thing we could all agree upon: The death penalty isn't working in California. With Proposition 34 on the ballot, this was the year to seek an end to capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

For my part, I sit somewhere in the middle of this divide. I find the continued refinement of the death penalty in the United States – moving from hangings to the electric chair to the gas chamber to endless debates over the drug cocktails for lethal injection – to be not humane but ghoulish.

Even where executions are carried out swiftly, as in Texas, I am unconvinced they provide a scintilla of deterrent value. Yet I'm not someone who ever stood outside of San Quentin holding a candle. I didn't lose any sleep when the government executed Timothy McVeigh or any other number of horrific mass murderers.

As we prepared to publish our series, I wondered how long it would take for a death penalty proponent to blast us for wanting to "save" condemned murderers. As it turned out, it took just a few hours.

"Instead of the editorial board holding the government's feet to the fire on this issue, it has befriended the mass murderers and child killers populating death row," wrote Jonathan Schrader of Elk Grove in a letter we published online Monday.

Sorry to pick on Schrader, but the effort to vilify everyone and anyone who questions the death penalty is a tired tactic, an obvious attempt to stifle discussion on this issue. It doesn't matter how costly or ineffective the death penalty is, or how randomly it is applied. If you even raise these issues, you are a collaborator with serial killers.

Fortunately, the vast majority of responses – which you can read in today's Forum and dozens of other letters at www.sacbee.com – have been thoughtful, civil and focused upon the points we raised.

When we launched this series, we wanted to make an argument for Proposition 34, but more than that, we hoped to elevate the debate on an issue that too often sinks under the weight of emotion.

The Bee has a long history of strong commentary on the death penalty. Steve Wiegand documented much of it in a detailed, dispassionate column we published last Sunday. As Wiegand revealed, The Bee's initial support for the death penalty was born in the frontier era and reflected the popular sentiment of the state well into the last century.

Yet in recent years, California has become increasingly ambivalent about the death penalty, and The Bee's editorials of the past decade have reflected that ambivalence.

That's a dangerous place for an editorial page to be. If we are going to offer opinions, we shouldn't be equivocating, writing in conditional phrases, dancing around an issue or avoiding it.

By changing our stance on the death penalty, we've allowed ourselves to do what our readers expect an editorial page to do – take strong stands on the leading issues of the day and provide a forum for the public to debate them.

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