Voices: Stephen Rohde


Last year, the editors of the Southwestern Law Review asked Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and DPF board chair, if he was interested in writing an article for an upcoming issue dedicated entirely to capital punishment.

“I told them I’d like to write about my personal journey regarding the death penalty, and they were very open to that,” Rohde says. “It’s rare to have a law review article written in the first person, but they supported me and allowed me to use my own voice.”

“Choosing Life: Reflections On the Movement to End Capital Punishment prompted me to think about how my life and career have coincided with the entire modern transformation of both public opinion and the legal issues surrounding the death penalty.”

For Rohde, the journey began with the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, who were executed in 1953.

“I was nine years old, living in New York, hearing talk about the case at home. It was very disturbing as a child to understand that the government could kill people in a calculated and deliberate way. I didn’t realize that could happen until then.” He writes that the case “has haunted me all my life. It was definitely an impetus to become actively involved as a lawyer and an activist in the abolition movement. The Rosenbergs began a long list of people whose death sentences and executions have intensified my opposition to capital punishment.”

After graduating from Columbia Law School, Rohde went into intellectual property and constitutional law, but his interest in the death penalty never wavered. “Because I’m not a criminal lawyer, I didn’t think I could use my legal skills in court. I thought I’d be an advocate, writing, public speaking, organizing,” he says. So, when he heard that former California Governor Pat Brown had helped found an anti-death penalty organization called Death Penalty Focus in 1988, he joined, and became one of its earliest board members. He writes that the staff and board members of DPF “have been some of the most visionary, dedicated, compassionate, and tireless people I have ever met in my social justice and civil liberties work over the years.”

Later, Rohde learned about the need for civil lawyers to get involved in capital cases, specifically in filing habeas corpus appeals. He didn’t hesitate, and worked on two cases. The first was a federal habeas corpus proceeding for inmate Charlie McDowell, who was convicted of murder in 1984. Rohde’s article describes how he helped reverse McDowell’s death sentence, but McDowell was retried twice more and again sentenced to death. His latest appeal is pending.

In the second case, Rohde joined the clemency team on behalf of Stanley Tookie Williams III, a former leader of the Los Angeles Crips gang, who was sentenced to death for killing four people. Despite the impact Williams was having in luring young people away from gangs, tragically, the clemency effort failed and Williams was executed.

For the last twenty years, Rohde has befriended death row inmate Bill Clark, a man he believes is innocent, who is a prolific writer and artist.

“In all these cases, I’ve grown to know these people, and to see them as human beings. Because of that I feel that no voter, no juror, no judge — no one — should ever take it upon themselves to vote or support execution unless they have looked in the eyes of these people and realized there’s a human being,” Rohde writes.

Rohde continues his activism. He campaigned for both Propositions 34 and 62, California anti-death penalty measures that failed by slim margins in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Though they lost, he isn’t discouraged. Even though Neil Gorsuch, a fervent supporter of the death penalty, is now on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the current Administration is trying to broaden the federal death penalty, Rohde says he remains hopeful.

“Great legal movements have not always been led by the Supreme Court. Often the Court is just putting the finishing touches on social justice and criminal justice movements that the people have led. The civil rights movement advanced over time not just because of Brown v. Board of Education — it was decades after that court decision for civil rights to take hold. Look at marriage equality, that was a real tipping point. Gavin Newsom as Mayor of San Francisco courageously led the way, and other legislatures followed before the Supreme Court ruled. Sometimes the courts are just a reinforcement of popular movements.”

As for the death penalty, Rohde is confident the abolitionist movement will prevail. “I have lived for over 60 years since the Rosenberg executions, so I have literally lived through a transformation of public opinion on the death penalty falling to minority support and rising opposition. On that measure it’s clear we have history on our side. States have abolished it in either practice or by law. Look at the Democratic national platform in last year’s election. Bernie Sanders got a plank opposing the death penalty. These are significant changes, and they are cumulative in their impact. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.’”

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