Capitol Alert

Quin Denvir to Gov. Jerry Brown: Commute all death row sentences

Retired federal defender Quin Denvir
Retired federal defender Quin Denvir Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Quin Denvir, long an opponent of the death penalty and one of the lawyers who steered Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski around probable execution, has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to commute the sentences of California’s death row prisoners.

In a letter to the governor dated March 17, Denvir said he has “been haunted by the death penalty” since 1977, when it was reinstated in California and Denvir was appointed state public defender by Brown during his first term as governor.

“I have represented several death row inmates who were able to avoid execution, and I lost one, Tom Thompson,” Denvir said in the letter. “He was very likely innocent of capital murder, and his case has been chronicled by (9th U.S. Circuit) Judge (Stephen) Reinhardt as a miscarriage of justice.

“Now, in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, I would like to see California stop its, as (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Harry) Blackmun put it, tinkering with the machinery of death.

“I would respectfully ask you to exercise your gubernatorial clemency power to commute the sentences of the women and men on death row to life without possibility of parole,” Denvir wrote.

Brown’s office confirmed it had received the letter, but declined to comment.

The office holder’s clemency power is not wholly unrestricted. The California Constitution says the governor may not grant a pardon or commutation to a person “twice convicted of a felony except on recommendation of the Supreme Court, 4 judges concurring.”

The criminal justice system is an imperfect one.

Quin Denvir

Denvir, 75, is a revered figure in America’s anti-death penalty community. After leaving state service in 1984, he practiced criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels. The 9th Circuit appointed him federal defender for the Eastern District of California in 1996, where he defended complex and high-profile prosecutions and argued landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

While heading the federal defender’s office, he established a death penalty habeas unit and staffed it with highly qualified attorneys. Habeas corpus is a post-appeal recourse that allows a defendant to petition the court on a claim of unlawful detention.

Denvir and Judy Clarke, who has defended a number of high-profile cases throughout the country in which prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, teamed in Kaczynski’s case. In return for the government’s withdrawal of its request for death, Kaczynski reluctantly pleaded guilty to a years-long bombing campaign that killed three and injured 29, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

“In my opinion, Quin Denvir walks on water,” Clarke once told a Bee reporter.

Now retired and living in Davis, Denvir tackles a case now and then if it interests him in some way.

In his letter to Brown, he said that “the state should not make the moral choice to kill women and men because they themselves have killed.”

“Second,” he said, “the criminal justice system is an imperfect one, administered by men and women with their human frailties and susceptibility to public pressure and political tides. We accept those imperfections when life is not at stake, but we should not when there is the great risk that the death sentence will be imposed, as it has been in the past, in an arbitrary, discriminatory or unreliable manner.

“I appreciate your listening to me,” Denvir told the governor in the letter. “I hope and pray that you will see this as the right thing, something that you can and should do.”

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189 .