‘When he told me that, a lit­tle bit of me died’

Some rage, some praise af­ter New­som halts death penalty

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Casey Tolan and Katy Mur­phy

SACRA­MENTO >> The day be­fore Gov. Gavin New­som an­nounced he was putting Cal­i­for­nia’s death penalty on hold, he in­vited fam­ily mem­bers of some death row in­mates’ vic­tims to Sacra­mento to share the news about his dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion.

“When he told me that, a lit­tle bit of me died,” said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daugh­ter Polly was mur­dered in Pe­taluma in 1993. “It’s Trumpian, to me, that you can dis­re­gard the will of the peo­ple and the law of the land and make some kind of ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion based on your own per­sonal phi­los­o­phy.”

But for other death row vic­tims’ fam­i­lies, New­som’s move came as an im­por­tant step to­ward ad­dress­ing what crit­ics say are the many fail­ures of the coun­try’s largest death row.

“To­day is one of the hap­pi­est days of my life,” said Aba Gayle, whose teenage daugh­ter, Cather­ine Blount, was mur­dered near Auburn in 1980. “An ex­e­cu­tion is a state­sanc­tioned, pre­med­i­tated mur­der. Don’t do that in my name and def­i­nitely don’t do that in Cather­ine’s name.”

New­som’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der — which gave a re­prieve to the state’s 737 con­demned in­mates, a fourth of all in­mates on death row in the coun­try — ig­nited pas­sions on both sides of the deeply emo­tional is­sue Wed­nes­day.

Civil rights ac­tivists and state Demo­cratic

“These are mon­sters. The fam­i­lies are ex­pect­ing some sem­blance of jus­tice, and now the gov­er­nor is tak­ing a po­si­tion against the will of the peo­ple and us­ing uni­lat­eral au­thor­ity that he crit­i­cizes our pres­i­dent for us­ing.”

— Assem­bly­man Tom Lackey

“An ex­e­cu­tion is a state-sanc­tioned, pre­med­i­tated mur­der. Don’t do that in my name and def­i­nitely don’t do that in Cather­ine’s name.”

— Aba Gayle, whose daugh­ter, Cather­ine Blount, was mur­dered in 1980

lead­ers praised his de­ci­sion as a coura­geous stand against a pun­ish­ment that the gov­er­nor said “strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Cal­i­for­nian.” But op­po­nents ar­gued that he was over­rid­ing vot­ers, who re­jected a death penalty re­peal and chose to speed up the ex­e­cu­tion process just 2½ years ago.

The or­der, which also in­cluded clos­ing the ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber at San Quentin prison and with­drew the state’s re­vised lethal in­jec­tion pol­icy, doesn’t in­clude com­mu­ta­tions and won’t take any­one off death row per­ma­nently. A fu­ture gov­er­nor could with­draw New­som’s mora­to­rium im­me­di­ately.

Still, it also had widereach­ing im­pli­ca­tions. As of Wed­nes­day, a third of all death row in­mates are in

states with a gov­er­nor-im­posed mora­to­rium: most in Cal­i­for­nia, along with those from Colorado, Ore­gon and Penn­syl­va­nia.

Fac­ing a crush of cam­eras on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, with a dozen Demo­cratic elected of­fi­cials on each side and the Capi­tol ro­tunda be­hind them, New­som said he couldn’t stom­ach the thought of send­ing an in­no­cent pris­oner to the ex­e­cu­tion room.

“I can’t sign my name to that,” he said. “I can’t be party to that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Be­cause of le­gal chal­lenges to its le­gal in­jec­tion method, Cal­i­for­nia hasn’t ex­e­cuted an in­mate since con­victed triple mur­derer Clarence Allen in 2006.

But in 2016, vot­ers nar­rowly ap­proved an ini­tia­tive to speed up ex­e­cu­tions and re­jected a mea­sure that would have ended the death penalty. New­som was one of the few ma­jor Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials to sup­port the re­peal

propo­si­tion; then-Gov. Jerry Brown did not take a po­si­tion.

Vot­ers could get to have their say again sooner rather than later. Marin Assem­bly­man Marc Levine in­tro­duced a state con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment Wed­nes­day to re­peal the death penalty, a move that could put the is­sue on the 2020 bal­lot if it gets ap­proval from two-thirds of the state leg­is­la­ture. New­som said he would sup­port a re­peal if it did go be­fore vot­ers again.

“We are never go­ing to let one of these peo­ple out of jail. They will be in prison for the rest of their lives,” Demo­crat Levine said. “But we will no longer be wast­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on a death penalty that is rarely used — only 13 since 1978. How is that jus­tice?”

New­som said he had “enor­mous re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion” for vic­tims’ fam­i­lies who dis­agree with him, and said he had heard from par­ents on both sides of the


But Klaas, who lives in Sausal­ito, ar­gued that New­som was de­fend­ing “the worst dregs of our so­ci­ety.” See­ing his daugh­ter’s killer, Richard Allen Davis, ex­e­cuted af­ter more than 20 years on death row would mean “his in­flu­ence would stop, that I’d never have to think about him again,” Klaas said.

Tami Alexan­der, the wife of for­mer NFL star Ker­mit Alexan­der, whose mother, sis­ter and two young neph­ews were mur­dered in a 1984 home in­va­sion in Los An­ge­les, also blasted New­som. The killer in that case, Tiequon Cox, has spent more than three decades on death row.

“We’re dis­ap­pointed that this feels more like a dic­ta­tor­ship than it does a democ­racy,” she said. “Why should any of us sit on a jury now? What dif­fer­ence does it make?”

But some vic­tims’ fam­i­lies came to the Capi­tol to

sup­port the gov­er­nor.

“He rec­og­nized with ma­tu­rity and with in­tel­lect that the sys­tem is bro­ken; that he was not go­ing to be the one that ex­e­cuted some­body who was pos­si­bly in­no­cent,” said Bethany Webb, whose sis­ter, Laura, was killed in a Seal Beach mass shoot­ing in 2011 by a shooter who’s serv­ing life in prison. A tat­too of Laura rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle now cov­ers Bethany’s right arm.

Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris lauded New­som, call­ing his move “an im­por­tant day for jus­tice” in a state­ment.

“It’s time to turn the page on this chap­ter and end a deeply flawed sys­tem of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in Cal­i­for­nia,” said Har­ris, who is run­ning for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent and has faced scru­tiny over her own stands on the death penalty as San Fran­cisco district at­tor­ney and state at­tor­ney gen­eral.

While many Demo­cratic lead­ers ap­plauded the gov­er­nor’s ac­tion, the con­dem­na­tion from Repub­li­cans — and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — was swift.

“De­fy­ing vot­ers, the Gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia will halt all death penalty ex­e­cu­tions of 737 stone cold killers,” Trump wrote on Twit­ter. “Friends and fam­i­lies of the al­ways for­got­ten VIC­TIMS are not thrilled, and nei­ther am I!”

Assem­bly­man Tom Lackey, R-Palm­dale, called New­som’s de­ci­sion “shame­ful.”

“These peo­ple who are on death row, the 737 peo­ple, have com­mit­ted over 1,000 atroc­i­ties, and al­most 300 of them have been in­volved in rape and bru­tal be­hav­ior prior to their death,” Lackey said Wed­nes­day. “These are mon­sters. The fam­i­lies are ex­pect­ing some sem­blance of jus­tice, and now the gov­er­nor is tak­ing a po­si­tion against the will of the peo­ple and us­ing uni­lat­eral au­thor­ity that he crit­i­cizes our pres­i­dent for us­ing.”


The lethal in­jec­tion cham­ber at San Quentin State Prison in Septem­ber 2010. The state has not had an ex­e­cu­tion since 2006.


Marc Klaas stands in front of a por­trait of his daugh­ter, Polly Klaas, at his home in Sausal­ito. Polly was killed in 1993 when she was 12.

Polly Klaas


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