Six former governors called on California Gov. Jerry Brown this week to grant clemency to the 740 men and women on death row, stating that “The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership.”
In an editorial in Thursday’s New York Times, former governors Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn, and Toney Anaya acknowledged the “terrible responsibility” of signing a death warrant, “hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out as we were.” But, they write, “We became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.
“Mr. Brown now has the chance to do what others in our ranks have done after they became aware of the price paid for taking a human life. We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system, and also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.”
The governors’ editorial was the culmination of weeks of a steadily growing chorus of voices asking Brown to either declare a moratorium on executions, repeal the death penalty, or reduce death sentences to life before he leaves office in January.
Thirty-one thousand people from around the country signed a petition in response to a public service announcement DPF President Mike Farrell filmed stating that, “It’s a dark time in America. Join me in asking Gov. Brown to declare a moratorium on executions and commute all death sentences to life in prison. For a just, moral state, end the death penalty in California.”
Equal Justice USA and the Catholic Mobilizing Network also collected signatures, and in just the last week, added nearly 10,000 names.
The California Catholic Conference and Catholics Against the Death Penalty collected six thousand letters saying that Brown “has an opportunity to address this appalling inequity in California’s justice system by commuting the sentences of many on death row to life imprisonment. He can grant clemency . . . or he can issue an executive order halting executions.” They delivered the letters to Brown’s office earlier this month.
Another Catholic group, Sant’ Egidio, which has hundreds of thousands of followers in chapters around the world, and is close to Pope Francis, joined with representatives of 25 countries to also appeal to Brown to commute the sentences of the entire death row before leaving office. Reuters reports that the coalition made the appeal at the 11th International Conference of Ministers of Justice held in Italy’s parliament. Speaking for the entire conference, Sant’ Egidio representative Mario Marazziti asked Brown to be “the leader that has the political courage and wisdom to prevent his fellow citizens from being involved in any humiliation of human life by . . . declaring a general moratorium . . . and starting the process to commute all death sentences to life sentences.”
Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and a lifelong death penalty opponent, also appealed to Brown in a letter in which she wrote, “Thinking of you with your deep soul, sensitive conscience, and devotion to the Gospel of Jesus, it seems to me that, if anyone is spiritually poised for such a morally courageous act, that person is you.”
Others writing to Brown include the European Union Ambassador David O’Sullivan who noted that Brown has “a personal commitment to the issue,” and pointed out that the United Nations Third Committee, which includes 123 countries, “voted in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty . . . and we continue to believe that the elimination of the death penalty is fundamental to the protection of human dignity. . . .”
And the LA Times, in an editorial titled “Brown and Newsom Know the Death Penalty is Wrong. They Should Work Together to do Something About It,” wrote, “Our national evolving standard of decency is moving away from the brutal and immoral practice of killing people for their crimes. California should evolve as well.”
Pointing out that the state’s death penalty is “impracticable and unusable” as well as “unfair and immoral,” because it is racist and arbitrary, the paper says, “This would be a good issue on which to spend some of the healthy stash of political capital he has built up before he bows out.”
We hope the governor will hear, and heed, these many and varied voices. It would be a signature accomplishment and would burnish his considerable legacy.