The death penalty in California: Yes, no, maybe?

The state seems to lack the will to carry out executions that were twice endorsed by voters; will that change?


California has a death penalty on the books. Both the California constitution and the United States constitution specifically recognize capital punishment. Yet somehow California seems unable to actually execute anyone even though Texas, Florida and other states, which operate under the same federal constitution, manage to execute condemned prisoners with some regularity. Why is that so?

Let’s look at the current Dramatis Personae. They are Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris, Kermit Alexander, Bradley Winchell, Jeremy Fogel and Shellyanne Chang.

Jerry Brown is the Governor of the formerly great state of California. He is in his fourth term (non-consecutive) in office. He was well known as a young man and Jesuit seminary student when he attempted to intercede with his father, who was at the time Governor, in the matter of Caryl Chessman. Chessman was on death row for kidnap-rape, which at the time was a capital offense. Chessman was eventually executed under his father’s administration.

Photo LA Times

Jerry Brown has regularly said he has a personal objection to the death penalty, but would act in accordance with the law.

Kamala Harris is the state Attorney General. She was formerly the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco. She was well-known for saying up front that, during her tenure in office, if elected, there would not be a death penalty prosecution in her bailiwick. She was, as far as it went, an honest politician. She caught heat from the SFPD when she refused a death penalty prosecution for a cop killer. Of course it didn’t matter in the knee-jerk liberal haven of San Francisco; most of the voters applauded her for it. When she ran for A.G. she stated that she would enforce the law on the books.

There are now over 700 criminals on death row. One might almost think that Jerry and Kamala were slow-dragging the process of bringing California’s death penalty into line with court orders.

Kermit Alexander and Bradley Winchell are private citizens. They have generated a legal action against the State of California to compel the state to bring its procedure into line and start executing condemned prisoners. Both men are related to murder victims whose killers have been caught, tried and sentenced. Kamala Harris submitted a brief in the case opposing their action on the basis of lack of standing. On February 9, 2015, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne Chang ruled in favor of Alexander and Winchell.

U. S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel, an in interesting interpretation of “cruel and unusual,” has ruled that if there is even 0.001 percent chance that a prisoner would experience pain during the execution that procedure is not constitutionally valid. He stayed the execution of Michael Morales, who raped, beat with a hammer, stabbed and strangled Teri Winchell, 17, sister to Bradley Winchell.

So, what will shake out? Within my memory California voters have twice endorsed the death penalty by referendum. Yet the state, or at least the state’s political leaders, seem to lack the will to carry through. Is that likely to change in the near future? In my humble opinion, no.

Our political ruling class will continue to obfuscate slow-drag and use a cooperative court system and media to drag the system out and out and out ad infinitum, in the hopes the system collapses under its own weight.  

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