State Sen. Janet Nguyen’s attempt to add the death penalty as an option for victims killed because of their gender or sexual orientation was rejected Tuesday by the Senate’s Public Safety Committee Tuesday.
The committee voted 5-2 against Nguyen’s proposal to add a special circumstance for murders motivated by hate crimes against women and gays. Sens. Jeff Stone, R-Indio, and Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, voted yes.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas asked Nguyen to propose the change in the law after finding a loophole in the law that does not allow for the death penalty for hate crime murders against gays or women while researching charges against Sam Woodward, the accused killer of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein in January.
The senators who opposed Nguyen’s bill said they objected to any expansion of the death penalty.
“This will send a clear message that individuals who commit crimes against members of the LGBQT community that they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Nguyen told the committee.
“All I’m doing in this bill is adding four words, gender and sexual orientation… We can fix this oversight and provide law enforcement with recourse in the case of people found guilty of murdering someone for their sexual orientation or gender.”
Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, said she was “heartbroken” when she heard of Bernstein’s killing.
“I hope to bring justice for families like the Bernsteins,” she said.
Rackauckas told the committee, “There’s evidence that points to, of course, the murder and the possible motivation of him being gay.”
Natasha Minsker, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, told the committee that Woodward is still eligible to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of killing Bernstein for his sexual orientation.
“The effect of this bill is to expand the scope of the death penalty,” Minsker said. “California’s death penalty is broken beyond repair.”
Minsker said that since 1977 when the death penalty was restored California carried out 13 executions, but none in the past 12 years “because we have no legal method of carrying out executions.”
Also, it takes “more than 25 years to move (death penalty cases) through the courts and people on death row die of natural causes just like people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
Stone said he supported Nguyen’s bill because, “If you purposefully murder someone because of their sexual orientation then you should receive the same enhancements other hate crimes with our judicial system.”
Sen. Scott D. Wiener, D-San Francisco, told Nguyen that he appreciated her efforts.
“I appreciate that as a gay man who has seen too many members of my community, going back to when I was very young all the way through today,” being targets of violence, Wiener said.
“For the animal who did this to Mr. Bernstein — that person, as I understand it, could face life without the possibility of parole, and I hope that is seriously considered,” Wiener said.
Wiener added he opposes the death penalty.
“I don’t think it’s effective,” he said. “I think it’s been a stain on our society.”
Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, the chair of the committee, said former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, now a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, specifically did not want the death penalty to be expanded to include hate crimes against gays and women.
“I don’t support the death penalty, and I wouldn’t support this expansion even if I did,” Skinner said. “I would want to respect Senator Kuehl’s effort.
“She went to the extra trouble to make sure the hate crime statute did not include special circumstances on the death penalty. She specifically put into the code life without the possibility of parole… I don’t support this bill today in respect to Senator Kuehl’s efforts to make sure that we don’t necessary expand the death penalty aspect of it.”
Nguyen responded that she did not aim to “expand hate crime categories” or to make a statement on the death penalty.
“I’m not here at all to debate the death penalty,” Nguyen said. “I believe any individual who is murdered based on being from the LGBQT community should be treated no differently than any other category. I apologize if you felt this somehow came up as a death penalty expansion… I had no intention of doing away with the former senator’s bill. That was never my intention.”