Editorials

Confront reality and end death penalty charade

This gurney with body, leg and arm straps has been used for 11 lethal injection executions in the old chamber. It’s in new, as yet unused, execution room.
This gurney with body, leg and arm straps has been used for 11 lethal injection executions in the old chamber. It’s in new, as yet unused, execution room. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

California authorities paid $10,000 in legal fees to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation earlier this month when they settled a death penalty-related lawsuit. It was the latest insult inflicted by leaders who won’t publicly admit that capital punishment is an abject failure, and end it.

The $10,000 is a pittance, compared to the hundreds of millions California taxpayers have spent on endless death sentence appeals, and to ensure that the 750 people on death row receive adequate health and mental health care, and are housed in quarters that meet constitutional standards against cruel and unusual punishment.

At some point, and we hope that point is soon, California’s elected leaders must admit that the system cannot be repaired. On this point, they would follow Nebraska, where legislators in that Republican state last month banned capital punishment.

Gov. Jerry Brown is a moral opponent of the death penalty. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the one declared candidate to replace Brown in 2018, opposes capital punishment, too, and was the one statewide official who publicly supported a 2012 failed initiative that sought to end the death penalty.

State law constrains governors from commuting sentences single-handedly. A majority of the California Supreme Court would need to agree, if the person has been convicted multiple times. Brown has appointed three of the seven justices.

Attorney General Kamala Harris says she is an opponent, too. But Harris is appealing a judge’s ruling that the capital punishment system in California is unconstitutional because it is so dysfunctional.

“As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary,” U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote last year.

The state’s failure to acknowledge reality came into focus again when California settled a suit in which the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation sought to force the state to develop a single-drug protocol for dispatching condemned people. This came nine years after a federal judge in San Jose found that California’s choice of lethal drugs was unconstitutional.

As part of the settlement, the state will await a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected to be issued soon that likely will determine the legality of Oklahoma’s execution drugs of choice. By terms of the settlement, the state will then come up with a solution within four months. But, of course, death penalty opponents will do what they are morally compelled to do: sue. Litigation will drag on.

Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation told a member of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that executions could resume by fall 2016.

Death penalty advocates have been making similar claims since the 1970s when the California Legislature overrode a Brown veto and reinstated capital punishment, after the state Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional.

In 1992, after Robert Alton Harris became the first person in a generation to be put to death, death penalty proponents and abolitionists predicted the gas chamber would receive regular use.

After Harris’ execution, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, then an assemblyman, carried legislation to give inmates the choice of lethal injection. That was supposed to end appeals based on the cruelty of the execution method.

California has put 13 men to death since reinstating the death penalty, plus a 14th who was sentenced to death here but executed in Missouri for crimes there. It hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.

Another 66 condemned inmates have died of natural causes; 24 have committed suicide; and 11 succumbed to other causes, including drug overdoses, in cellblocks that are supposed to be highly secure. An $835,000 execution chamber completed in 2010 has never been used.

People on death row have committed horrible murders. Each should die in prison. But California’s elected leaders and the electorate must face reality. The death penalty has not worked, and never will.

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