To shorten the long waits between a death penalty conviction and an execution 17 years in this state the California Supreme Court asked on Monday for a constitutional amendment that would let lower courts handle some of the load. The lengthy wait time is one of many reasons the death penalty has been called cruel and unusual punishment in the past, including by the editorial board. But the board wasn't always as staunchly against the death penalty as it is today, switching to consistent opposition only in the 1970s, and switching back once when the criminal was right. All olde-tyme spellings from the originals.
On Dec. 31, 1913, the board express its disgust with those who sympathize with criminals, soundly if not violently defending a death penalty verdict:
As far back as history wends its way there has been a fetish made of murderers and conspicuous scoundrels by the persons afflicted with grewsome sentimentality. Criminals, if vicious enough to be notorious, are babied and petted, made the recipient of presents, letters and fussed over in a manner that outrages decency and intelligence.... While all of these pleas are being made for [convicted robber and murderer Ralph] Fariss, while certain newspaper writers are mingling tears with ink as they discuss his "youth," his "family" and so on ad nauseam, no one seems to deem it worthwhile to call attention to the fatherless babes of Mrs. Montague.... He has placed himself beyond the ban of tender sympathy by his callous brutality; and the death sentence was just.
Three years later, on April 7, 1916, comes a disturbing demonstration of The Times' thoughts on race and execution, which the board surely thought enlightened:
Two negroes were hanged by mobs Wednesday.... Never a month goes by but something of the kind takes place and the lynchers are never apprehended. The negroes may, and often do, deserve the death penalty, but so do many other men before whom justice throws her aegis until the law has spoken.
Just to be clear, the editorial board was broad-minded enough to concede that lynching was a bad idea.
For many years to come it would sound the Times would sound same note on executions, or stay silent. On May 8, 1948, however, the board seemed to sway slightly, imagining a society that could go without imposing the harshest punishment:
The British Parliament has adopted a law suspending the death penalty for murder for a five year test period, and the life of one man already condemned has been saved by the act....Murderand crime generallyis not the problem in England as it is with us. In 1945 the United Kingdon had 35 murders, which may be contrasted to 116 in Los Angeles. The new policy in England represents a great change from the conditions in the past century.
On June 17, 1953, the board meditated at length on the sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, seeming at once to approve the verdict and to call into doubt the moral foundation for it:
No civilized human being rejoices in the death of another human being, but from the Law of Moses to the present day organized society has inflicted the death penalty upon some of its members for the safety and preservation of all others.If Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed this will be what the society organized as the United States of America has done .While honest citizens may debate the theory of capital punishment, it is well established in our law and those who embark on capital crimes are by no means ignorant of the risk.... In passing the death sentence, Judge [Irving] Kaufman commented that the Rosenbergs' crime, proven to the unanimous satisfaction of the jury, was "worse than murder." This view was echoed by President Eisenhower in denying their petition for executive clemency....With these facts straight, it is apparent that the Rosenbergs have received their full measure of justice. But what of mercy, which their advocates now seek? Mercy is an attribute of Divinity, and we shall not presume to restrict it.But we solemnly submit that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg could have shown a little more mercy for the millions of human beings who may someday perish in frightful atomic explosions .
Only three years later, the board is considering reasons to oppose the death penalty, focusing not on morality but on practicality. Sept. 19, 1956:
Perhaps capital punishment would have fewer defenders if life imprisonment meant what it says. Too often life sentences under our probationary system are shortened to 20, 15, or even fewer years. This commutation may be proper in some cases but when heinous crimes are committed and life sentences are pronounced without hope or possibility of parole, perhaps many will feel that justice is served as well as it is in the gas chamber.
On May 11, 1957, the Times urges the legislature to make a decision on the death penalty, even though the board itself is still a bit unsure about its position, and seems to imply that murderers who killed in a passionate rage are fairly upstanding members of society:
The Assembly makes no distinction between murder for profit and crimes of passion.... By mistaken lenity, California in effect sentenced a number of innocent and worthy people to death....The Times believes that, on the whole, the argument for capital punishment is stronger than the arguments against it, and we doubt the force of the argument that capital punishment fails as a deterrent . It is not a deterrent against murders of passion but neither is any other measure.
Three years later came the conclusion of the infamous Caryl Chessman case. The convicted murderer and rapist became a rallying point for opponents of capital punishment, a group which The Times once again pointedly declined to join. The board echoed its 1913 editorial, adding some creepy analogies, on Feb. 20, 1960:
The world has just seen and abetted an act of American lynch law lynch law in reverse. The mob did not break the jail and drag an untried suspect off to the nearest tree, but its clamors and threats so intimidated authority that a criminal, judged and condemned, was plucked away from the executioner.... Similar emotions, springing from ignorance mostly, have operated to save Caryl Chessman from the sanitary disposal mechanism that a civilized society is constrained to set up to shield itself from the contamination of criminal psychopaths.... By contriving to stay alive he does to the honor, dignity and safety of the state of California what he did to those two poor women in the hills above Los Angeles.
But only days later, on Feb 26, 1960, the board took a softer tone:
Abolishment of capital punishment in California entails much greater responsibility for the Legislature than tearing out the gas chamber at San Quentin. It cannot do this without rewriting the rules on life imprisonment, to make it mean, in the cases of former capital crimes, what it appears to mean.
And on Dec. 30, 1966, despite objecting to Gov. Pat Brown's commutations of sentences, the board avoided the pro or con question and just asked the legislature to figure it out, already:
The moral and practical implications of capital punishment have been debated for thousands of years and there are still no absolute answers....We do not urge here either [the death penalty's] abolition or retention, but we do suggest that the way things operate at present makes a mockery of the death sentence.
Three years later, the board faced another major criminal caseSirhan Sirhan's trial for the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy. It editorialized on the conclusion of the case on April 25, 1969. As with Chessman and Rosenberg, in the case of an extraordinary crime, the board manages to condone the death penalty:
The jury's finding of first degree murder was based on overwhelming evidence of premeditation, and its imposition of the death penalty was in keeping with the law.... Sirhan is a wretched and ultimately pathetic little man, who would have remained deservedly obscure except for the tragedy he caused. That tragedy cannot be erased.One can only pray that others like it can be prevented.
But three years after that, on Feb. 21, 1972, the board seemed to have reversed its position, this time defending itself with a moral argument.
The Supreme Court of California, in a decision of persuasive clarity and wisdom, has found the death penalty unconstitutional under the state's own constitution.... The quality of society is the heart of the matter. The court has contributed to that quality once again.
Over the next year, the board would write several editorials reaffirming that argument. Only four days later, the board reconfirmed that position, despite the concerns of one Gov. Ronald Reagan. In June, the board praised the U.S. Supreme Court for its Furman v. Georgia decision, which began a four-year moratorium on capital punishment in the United States. In October of 1972, the board urged "No" on Proposition 17, which would have restored California's death penalty (the measure passed anyway). And in January 1973, the board tried to dissuade the Justice Department from writing legislation restoring the death penalty.
Ten months later, on Oct. 1, the board reacted to California's decision to reinstate the death penalty and, now fully in the anti-death-penalty camp, resorted to a Holocaust analogy:
Gov. Reagan has suggested looking into a more humane approach than the gas chamber, perhaps a lethal shot or pill like those given to cats, dogs and horses. The governor's intentions cannot be faulted, but the method has chilling overtones of Dachau....Some ways to kill a person are more inhumane than other ways, but there is no humane way to kill a person.
For the next several years, the board hammered Republicans, Reagan, the Supreme Court, and even the general public with harsh words:
Conscience, Politics and Death, June 6, 1977
...[W]e deplore the actions of a small number of Republicans in the Legislature who are weighing the political advantages of sustaining Brown's veto, although all are vigorous advocates of capital punishment.... It would be unconscionable for pro-death penalty Republicans to sustain a veto that is offensive to their consciences and to their constituencies in the shabby hope that it might serve them politically.The Principle Will Not Die, June 11, 1981
The Senate Judiciary committee has given its answer to violence. It is death....The theory behind the bill is to impose death in a fair and rational way. That is the theory, but the history of capital punishment mocks it in practice . Regardless of the laws on the books, regardless of the widespread support for capital punishment, society flinches from imposing death with rigorous consistency....It is morally wrong, we believe, for the state to take a life. In doing so, it contributes to the brutality that afflicts society.Morally Impermissible, Feb. 24, 1984
Unfortunately President Reagan chose to make the issue partisan in his radio address last weekend in which he indicated the Democrats would show they were soft on crime if they defeated the death penalty expansion...the President urged the House to pass crime legislation that would stop "coddling criminals." The phrase trivializes the issue, which is whether it is morally permissible for society to take life when it can refrain without mortal damage to itself. We think not.Grisly Relic of History, Jan. 25, 1985
[P]olls say and we believe them to be accurate that the death penalty is favored by probably 70% of Americans. But we remain convinced that there will come a better day. When that day comes, the death penalty will be abolished as a grisly relic of history and unworthy of a just society.Death Penalty Dilemma, May 7, 1986
[E]xcluding death-penalty opponents [from juries] allows the prosecutor to put his thumb on the scales of justice. But not excluding them gives the defendant an unfair advantage. In fact, neither side should have an advantage, but such even-handedness is not possible to achieve in these cases.
Apart from the logical problems of the court's ruling, the decision clears away one of the last remaining generalized challenges to the death penalty and makes it likely that there will be a spate of executions in coming months. Many of the nation's 1,700 death-row inmates including at least one in California were convicted by juries from which death-penalty foes had been excluded. The executions are expected go forward in what could be a blood bath whose magnitude is unprecedented in recent history.
On Oct. 17, 1986, the board took a full editorial to consider race and the death penalty:
There are now 1,788 people on death row. Of them, 1,713 were convicted of killing a white person. However, blacks are six times more likely to be murder victims than whites are .And on Sept. 12, 1994, the board wondered if celebrity mattered more than race in one notable case:
It strains credulity to see no significance in this pattern. Rather, it is obvious that society values white lives more than black lives and is more willing to impose capital punishment when a white life has been taken.
The decision announced last week by prosecutors not to seek the death penalty against O.J. Simpson appears to spring as much from pragmatism as from any rarefied balancing of punishment against the alleged crime. Given that Simpson was an appealing celebrity with no felony record, prosecutors surely feared that seeking the death penalty could jeopardize their ability to win a conviction for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
And for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the board reversed its long and vocal opposition to execution on June 12, 1997:
Timothy McVeigh should receive the ultimate penalty for committing the most infamous act of terrorist murder to ever take place on American soil.It can be reasonably argued that there is a social purpose in imposing the death penalty in this instance to bring closure and, yes, a measure of national retribution for a murderous act of unprecedented enormity. That said, why not round up every death row murderer in the nation and march them toward their final destination?Because almost everything about the McVeigh case is the exception, not the rule.
But in more recent years, the board has refused to take exception for any criminal, and even reverses its thoughts on McVeigh:
It's not about Clarence, Jan. 16, 2006Copyright © 2015, CT Now
When Stanley Tookie Williams was executed last month, we said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was right to have questioned the former gang leader's tale of redemption but still wrong to put him to death....At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, it's Clarence Ray Allen's turn to be put to death. Allen arranged a triple slaying in 1980 while in prison for another murder.Some argue that the state has no business killing a blind and infirm 76-year-old former warehouse manager. To which we say, again, this isn't about Allen, it's about us.Rough justice, Dec. 28, 2006
If one opposes capital punishment as a matter of principle, as we do, putting [Saddam] Hussein to death is of course objectionable. So was executing Adolf Eichmann and Timothy McVeigh....The most practical argument for sparing Hussein's life is rooted not in procedural scruples or a rejection of the death penalty but in political strategy.