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....

Murder—and crime generally—is 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¬Ö.

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¬Ö.

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....