Dear Governor Brown:
On behalf of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ), the statewide organization of public and private criminal defense attorneys, we are writing to implore you as one of your final and most heroic acts as Governor of California to commute the death sentences of all persons currently on death row in California.
The death penalty is a dark stain on our state. Virtually all of the developed world has ceased the use of death as part of their system of criminal justice. Most of the nations that still use capital punishment have not demonstrated a commitment to, nor respect for human rights. An increasing number of states in our own nation have abolished the death penalty in the past several years. As the Supreme Court has recognized, “evolving standards of decency” have caused our criminal justice system to outlaw punishments that were once deemed acceptable, and even necessary, in past generations. It is now time to recognize that the standard of decency has evolved to the point in California that the state can no longer be itself the executioner of its citizens.
For many years, many decades even, our nation and our state have tinkered with the death penalty and how it should be used in our system of criminal justice. We have reduced the number of crimes for which the death penalty maybe imposed. We have reduced the classes of people, such as the mentally ill and those under 18, upon whom death may be inflicted. But, while these are positive developments, this is all just tinkering. Justice Blackmon once wrote in a death penalty case that we “shall tinker no more” in voting to eliminate the death penalty in the United States. We should heed the great Justice’s words.
There is no legitimate question, based on a massive body of research, that the death penalty is capricious, arbitrary, racist, and disproportionately imposed on the poor, the poorly educated, and even those who who commit their crime in a particular area code. The haphazard application of the death penalty is one of its greatest faults and one of the strongest reasons for ending executions.
As your final term as Governor comes to a close, you have the unique power to give life to men who have been condemned to death.
Some of us are old enough to recall your father’s time as Governor. He was faced with a momentous decision regarding a notorious death row inmate for whom the question of commutation of his sentence was a matter of great public debate. In the end, then-Governor Brown allowed the execution to go forward. It was subsequently reported that he regretted that decision for the rest of his life.
Commuting the death sentences of the inmates on Death Row will not automatically end the death penalty here or anywhere else, for that matter. But it will be an act that will be forever remembered as the moment when California recognized what most of the developed world has already acknowledged; the death penalty is wrong and must not be allowed to continue. The people whose lives you spare from the death penalty will still die in prison, as do most people who have been sentenced to death, as most death row inmates indeed die of medical problems or old age long before their execution date is set. Their deaths, like all of ours, will come.
The State of California, however, should meet basic humanitarian needs while in confinement and have no role in hastening their deaths. We commend to you the wisdom of Shakespeare in the hope that where our words may have failed, his eloquence will not:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest;
it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
In the United States, the largest Death Row population resides in California. Taxpayers spend $150 million every year to support this system which has killed 13 people since 1978.
These $150 million dollars are dollars which are thereby not available to feed hungry children, house the homeless, provide help for Veterans and the mentally ill. Governor Brown, you have once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spare the lives of our fellow human beings. We beseech you from the depths of our souls to seize this opportunity for life.