Jerry Brown, Save the 740 People on Your Death Row
Six former governors call on California’s governor to follow in their footsteps and grant clemency to death row prisoners.
By Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya
The authors granted clemency to death row prisoners in their states.
Dec. 13, 2018
Among a governor’s many powers, none is more significant than signing a death warrant. It’s a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were. But 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 has done a remarkable job in his four terms. His overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system has ensured his legacy as one of the most courageous and effective governors in California’s history. Some of the changes include eliminating cash bail; prohibiting the incarceration of children under 12; no longer allowing children younger than 16 to be tried as adults; and prohibiting prosecutors from charging accomplices with first-degree murder.
Given this good work, we know it must weigh on Mr. Brown that, unless he acts soon, he will leave behind 740 men and women on California’s death row. It’s a staggering number and our hearts go out to him. From a humanitarian perspective, it is horrifying to imagine executing that many humans. As a practical matter, it’s beyond comprehension.
Even the most ardent proponents of capital punishment would shudder at composing a plan to execute 740 people. Would California’s citizens allow mass executions? If the state were to execute a single person every day, people would still be waiting on death row after two years.
Vicente Benavides might have been one of them. In April, the California Supreme Court released him from death row at San Quentin, where he spent 25 years after being convicted based on evidence that the court found was “false, extensive, pervasive and impactful.” We know a leader must then ask: “Are there more people wrongly convicted among the 740 in my custody?”
Perhaps. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that 164 men and women have been found innocent and released from death rows around the country since 1973, five of them from California. Even more disturbing, the National Academy of Sciences found that at least 4 percent of people on death row were and are probably innocent. This is the horror every governor of a killing state has to live with.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, 11 governors have granted clemency to death row prisoners in their states. They did not free them; they either reduced their sentences to life, declared a moratorium on executions or repealed their death penalty. We have all done one of these; so have Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in 2003; Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey in 2007; Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut in 2012; Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington in 2014; and Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania in 2015.
The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership. 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.
Mr. Brown has the power to commute the sentences of 740 men and women, to save 740 lives. Or, he can declare a moratorium on the death penalty and give Governor-elect Gavin Newsom the time he will need to figure out how to end a system broken beyond repair. Such an act will take political will and moral clarity, both of which Mr. Brown has demonstrated in the past. In the interest of his legacy, the people of California need his leadership one more time before he leaves office.
Richard Celeste was the governor of Ohio. John Kitzhaber was the governor of Oregon. Martin O’Malley was the governor of Maryland. Bill Richardson was the governor of New Mexico. Pat Quinn was the governor of Illinois. Toney Anaya was the governor of New Mexico.