Remember the victims. Death row is filled with killers, not martyrs

Governor explains his personal and passionate view behind halting death penalty

Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on March 13, 2019, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on March 13, 2019, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.

The death penalty is effectively dead in California thanks to an executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday, and progressives across the nation are cheering.

From singer John Legend to movie star Susan Sarandon to rapper Common to reality TV star Kim Kardashian and many other A-list cultural luminaries, the tweets of praise soared across Twitter after Newsom’s order provided a “reprieve” for all people sentenced to death in California.

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The governor has the right to issue reprieves and even hard-core, pro-death penalty supporters such as Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Foundation thinks legally challenging Newsom’s action would take a Hail Mary shot.

Personally, I would join in the cheering of Newsom if I weren’t haunted by the heinous details of unspeakable crimes committed by some of the men spared by Newsom’s pen and his flair for the dramatic.

Remember the victims? They received only passing mention from the governor after he announced his reprieve and, quite frankly, this is a weakness in the progressive movement – the inability to acknowledge that some convicted death row inmates really are guilty, some really did commit heinous acts. Some really aren’t worthy of sanctification for the purposes of making anti-death penalty arguments.


Meanwhile, have ever heard of Michael Lyons?

But for one of the men spared by Newsom, Michael Lyons would be about 30 today. Maybe he would have grown into a man who did good things for his community. Maybe he’d be that guy you knew and liked. He might have been a father by now, which would have been a blessing for his mom, Sandra Friend.

But in 1996, Michael Lyons was murdered at the age of 8. And honestly, Lyons wasn’t just murdered. To call what happened to Michael Lyons in a wooded area near Yuba City a murder is a misuse of the word. In truth, Michael Lyons was abducted, ravaged and tortured. His killer – an already convicted, violent sex offender named Robert Boyd Rhoades – did things to him that I cannot write here because they are too horrific.

The last time I wrote about Michael Lyons in 2012, I had long debates with my editors about what we could and could not share. My argument was this: That we in the media sanitize the crimes involving death row inmates by strictly hewing to industry norms of “good taste.”

And by sanitizing these crimes, we give the public a distorted picture of death row inmates. To hear Gov. Newsom talk on Wednesday, one might have thought that death row was populated by men who could be played by Denzel Washington or Bradley Cooper in a movie.

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No one would want to play Rhoades in a movie. And when my piece about what he did to Lyons was published, this is what I was allowed to share:

”(Lyon’s) blood was found on Rhoades’ knife, which was found in his truck along with Rhoades’ underwear. (Lyons’) throat was slashed on both sides of his neck. Lyons was stabbed on both sides of his abdomen and above his left nipple. He had puncture wounds on his hip and buttocks and eight stab wounds under his chin. He had defensive wounds on his hands, which investigators believe showed that he was trying to stop Rhoades as Rhoades tortured him.

“An autopsy showed Lyons had internal injuries from a sexual assault that DNA evidence showed had been committed by Rhoades. Investigators believe Rhoades twisted the knife in Lyons several times to inflict greater pain.

“They found Lyons lying face up in the brush on the west bank of the Feather River. He was naked from the waist down. His Batman T-shirt was pulled over his face.”

That’s not even the worst of it. But when I gave a talk to a community group a few days after these words were published, an older woman approached me as I was leaving and scolded me for publishing such graphic details. They were “offensive,” she said.

I wanted to scream at her, “Offensive? Yeah, they are very offensive. That is the point. “

No one wants to read these words over morning coffee. No one wants to know about these horrible crimes, but they happen. In California, fewer than 2 percent of murders becomes death penalty cases. They really are the worst of the worst. They really prove that evil lives in our world.

So now that Newsom essentially made sure no one is executed while he’s governor, I’m not going to slam him. Maybe history will prove that state-sanctioned killing was wrong on principle. My Catholic bishop certainly believes that.

But in making the principled argument, progressives too easily forget the people whose loved ones suffered and died at the hands of men who don’t deserve to be viewed as a discriminated class without at least the acknowledgment of what they did to wind up on death row.

Is there a concern that California has previously put innocent people to death?

Men condemned to death in California are held at San Quentin Prison. Here's a look at the state's death penalty from 1967 up to Governor Gavin Newsom's moratorium.

One that comes to mind as a maybe is Tom Thompson, an Orange County man executed in 1998. A federal appeals court judge wrote that Thompson was “likely innocent” of the rape and murder that resulted in his execution. While one of Newsom’s justifications for stopping the death penalty is that it is applied unequally to people of color, Thomson was white.

But if it’s true that Thompson was innocent – and we’ll never know – then that is reason enough to stop state sanctioned killing. Or if Newsom wanted, he could grant reprieves to individuals whose cases have doubt. He could do this while letting the clear-cut cases of murderers go forward to satisfy the will of California voters who have consistently supported the death penalty. Who are we talking about? One is Luis Bracamontes, the undocumented immigrant sentenced to death last year after murdering two law enforcement officers in a 2014 crime spree that terrorized the Sacramento region. Bracamontes was the man who laughed and joked all the way through his trial and sentencing.

“Some people should get the punishment they deserve,” said Scheidegger.

This is true.

But Newsom is stopping the whole enterprise and people are cheering. We’re looking at progressive California in 2019, where victims don’t have much standing unless we are talking about people shot and killed by police.

Two mothers of murder victims – Sandy Friend and Phyllis Loya – meet with Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 to oppose the moratorium on the death penalty declared by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.