Orange County’s top prosecutor and the head of an association representing Los Angeles County prosecutors Wednesday decried Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in California, while the Los Angeles County public defender’s office called it an “historic step” for criminal justice reform in the state.
“I’m obviously disgusted,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer told City News Service. “The governor does not have the moral high ground here. He talks about the morality of his decision-making. Well, tell that to the victims of these most heinous crimes committed by California’s worst murderers.”
The governor should seek another referendum on the issue rather than unilaterally placing a moratorium on capital punishment, Spitzer said. He noted that former Gov. Jerry Brown was also morally opposed to the death penalty, but as attorney general and governor did not try to stop executions in the state.
“He understood his legal obligation and took an oath to uphold the constitution and uphold the laws,” Spitzer said of Brown.
Orange County has more than five dozen inmates on the state’s death row list, but in at least one of those cases, the District Attorney’s Office reversed course on pursuing the ultimate punishment for Kenneth Clair, who is housed in Orange County Jail as he pushes for a new trial.
Spitzer said when he was an assemblyman, he asked the warden for permission to be present at the execution of Clarence Ray Allen, the last inmate to be executed in California in January 2006, because he anticipated running for District Attorney one day and felt it was important to be more informed on the death penalty.
“If you’re going to make policy for or against the death penalty, you have an obligation to be fully educated on the issue,” Spitzer said. He said he “walked away from it with a lot of peace, knowing that I was very carefully looking because of all the controversy to see if there were any inappropriate body movements or anything that showed suffering or any indication of pain and I didn’t see anything like that.”
Spitzer’s office noted in a statement that a ballot measure to speed up the appellate process for death row inmates passed in 2016 “because Californians want to see justice for the victims of the 737 condemned inmates,” adding that 65 of those inmates were sentenced to death for crimes in Orange County.
Michele Hanisee, president of the union representing nearly 1,000 Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys, said the governor is “usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty.”
More than 200 inmates are on death row for murders committed in Los Angeles County — the largest number by far of any county in California.
But a number of politicians agreed with the governor, who called it “the right thing” to do, as did the office of Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia.
“The governor’s decision brings California closer to ending the death penalty, a deeply flawed and racially biased system that fails to improve public safety,” the public defender’s statement says. “Only last year, Vincente Benavides, a man who had spent 25 years on death row in California, was exonerated. Mr. Benavides had always maintained his innocence, and he had no criminal record or history of violence. An innocent man could have been executed. This is only one reason why the moratorium is so important.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and state attorney general who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, called it “an important day for justice and for the state of California … As a career law enforcement official, I have opposed the death penalty because it is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, wrote in a post on Medium, “What the governor does today and what California does today is courageous and civilized and more than a grand gesture. It is a momentous achievement … I commend Governor Gavin Newsom for this decision, putting California on the same path as other civilized governments of the world.”
Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, D-South Los Angeles, also welcomed the governor’s decision.
“Time and again we have seen the death penalty fail to promote justice. Whether evaluating communities subject to over-policing, discriminatory sentencing policies, or the use of new evidence to overturn past convictions, there are simply too many systemic concerns to support continued state-sponsored killings,” he said. “Additionally, the death penalty has been a misuse of taxpayer dollars as the state spends billions fighting appeals, far more than is spent on incarceration for life sentences.”
Meanwhile, two Republicans from Orange County issued statements opposing the governor’s decision to declare the moratorium and to immediately close the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
“As a member of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, I already see enough legislation favoring criminals, rather than the victims,” said Assemblyman Tyler Diep, R-Westminster “This action is completely unacceptable and a disregard to the will of the voters. I ask, `When will the governor stand up for the victims and their families? Protecting convicted felons is another horrible message to would-be criminals who are already enjoying lax laws in the state. When is enough, enough?”’
Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said she was “disappointed that today’s action undermines the will of California’s voters who spoke clearly in 2016 to reaffirm the death penalty.”
Local attorney Seymour Amster — who defended convicted “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie Franklin Jr. in a Los Angeles Superior Court trial in which the former Los Angeles city garage attendant and sanitation worker was sentenced to death for the serial killings of nine women and a teenage girl — called the moratorium “a good first step.”
“Certainly we should listen to the governor and we should have discussions because the death penalty is truly not reducing crime in our communities and money would be better invested in education and law enforcement so we can truly reduce criminal behavior,” Amster told City News Service, echoing comments he made after jurors recommended in June 2016 that Franklin be sentenced to death.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, the California Innocence Project, Re:store Justice and Death Penalty Focus also lauded the governor’s order.
“It has been my dream for many years that we would end the human rights violation known as the death penalty in California,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project. “It is certain that as long as there is the death penalty there is the risk of executing innocent people.”
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