Voices: Ron Briggs

“We actually thought at the time, naively, that a broader death penalty would deter criminals,” Briggs says. “We truly believed the bill would reduce crime in California.”
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“In politics you get very few do-overs. In life you get very few do-overs. For me, this is a do-over.”

For Ron Briggs, the “do-over” is Proposition 62, an initiative on next month’s ballot, which would repeal California’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. Briggs is doing all he can to help get 62 passed, effectively repealing Proposition 7, the 1978 initiative sponsored by his father, John Briggs, which expanded the death penalty by increasing the categories that qualified as special circumstances.

Ron had worked with his father and his father’s chief of staff, Steven C. Bailey (now his brother-in-law), on writing Proposition 7, adding approximately 25 categories of felonies that would make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. And the three of them worked tirelessly to get the initiative passed.

“We actually thought at the time, naively, that a broader death penalty would deter criminals,” Briggs says. “We truly believed the bill would reduce crime in California.”

For the next 29 years, Briggs remained an “ardent supporter” of the death penalty, a man who “would curse when a scheduled execution didn’t take place.” Elected a supervisor in El Dorado County in 2006, he would blame “gutless bureaucrats and liberals” for hampering the system he and his father had fine-tuned. But in 2007, Briggs, who was raised Catholic, began attending church again, and listened as his parish priest spoke out against the death penalty. “He talked about how only God can take a life, that the final judgement is His, and I knew he was right,” Briggs says.

At around the same time, James Karis, Jr., who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the abduction, rape, and murder of one woman, and the abduction and attempted murder of another in El Dorado County, was given a second penalty phase trial after a federal judge found that mitigating evidence for Karis was not presented at his first trial. Briggs had become friendly with the surviving victim, Patty Vander Dussen, and was appalled at the toll a second trial, 25 years after the first, was taking on Vander Dussen. “She broke my heart. Twenty-six years after the fact and there’s another trial. I started thinking how the hell did we write an initiative that puts a mechanism in place that puts a woman like Patty through this ordeal again 26 years later? What about the victims and survivors? They’re sentenced too. I just thought that that was not what our intention was. I still get animated over it. It made an indelible impression on me.”

Karis was again sentenced to death, in 2007, and died in prison in 2013, at the age of 62.

And that’s when the third realization struck Briggs. “He dies of natural causes with two appeals remaining,” Briggs says. El Dorado County spent $1.1 million on the Karis re-trial at a time when county employees were being laid off, services were being cut, library hours reduced, all to meet a budget shortfall during the 2008 recession. “I made my mind up in 2007. That was a triple. God telling me one thing, Patty going through another trial, the fiscal issue staring me right in the face.”

He knew he had to do something. “I decided if I ever got the opportunity I would do whatever I could to end the death penalty.”

He campaigned for the anti-death penalty initiative Proposition 34, in 2012, which was narrowly defeated. And he jumped at the opportunity to work for Prop 62 this year. “I would say it is the highest-profile issue I’ve ever dealt with personally, and politically,” Briggs says.

And he has paid a political and personal price for his public stance. His mother hasn’t spoken to him since he began working on Prop 34 in 2012, and many Republican friends and officials have turned their backs on him. “They don’t return my calls for the most part,” he says. “But I have a thick skin. If they want to think I’m wrong, that’s fine. But the Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers, they ought to be all over this. We [El Dorado County] spent three million dollars sending a 62-year-old man to death in 2014. The mother of one of his victims told me she felt like she’d been sentenced to death with him because she’ll have to live with all of his appeals, and she’s right. And he’ll die in prison before we ever execute him.”

Briggs’s goal now is to convince his father, the man whose bill expanded California’s death penalty 38 years ago, a famously conservative Republican who served 14 years in the California Assembly and Senate, to publicly endorse 62 before the election. He’s optimistic he’ll succeed. “I think he would probably want to die knowing his legacy was to have done something good,” Briggs says.

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