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Next Challenge on the California Death Penalty on the Horizon

Prosecutors and judges give death penalty decisions despite Governor Newsom’s moratorium

By Evan Symon, March 10, 2020 6:37 am

The death penalty in California is due to face another hurdle this year following a number of judges and prosecutors respectively giving and asking for the death penalty in recent murder cases.

Going against the moratorium

On Friday, prosecutors in San Diego County asked for the death penalty against John Earnest, who killed 1 and injured 3 more in a Poway Synagogue shooting. Before that, in February, a Riverside County prosecutor asked for the death penalty in a Palm Springs quadruple murder case. And in January a Riverside County judge sentenced a man to death for murdering his mother in Indio.

All of these decisions have come after Governor Newsom’s decision last year to put a moratorium on all death penalty cases, putting a temporary hold on the death penalty in the state despite the state not having an execution happen since 2006.

“We cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to soften the blow of what happens to these victims,” Newsom said after announcing the moratorium. “If someone kills, we do not kill. We’re better than that.”

The death penalty is also further complicated this year due to Proposition 66 kicking in. Passed in 2016 by a narrow 51% to 49% vote in the general election, prop 66 was originally designed to speed up executions by moving around the appeals process.

Instead it was announced last month that, due to the proposition, 700 death row inmates would be moved to other prisons to be part of the ‘general population’ of prisoners, complete with work and recreation privileges. Many voters had not foreseen that side effect of the proposition, and have left many supporters, including main backer of Prop 66 and former San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos, angry at the unforeseen change.

“Now to say that this murderer is going to be allowed to go to a rehabilitation program and be treated like any other low-grade inmate is a slap to the face,” said Ramos on the San Quentin outcome.

“Poetic Justice”

Assemblyman Marc Levine. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), who opposes the death penalty, called the outcome ‘poetic justice’.

“That they also voted to allow rehabilitation services is poetic justice and reveals just how broken and beyond repair the death penalty is,” stated Levine in a statement.

Levine was no stranger to propositions in 2016, as he had his own in Proposition 62. Defeated by voters 53% to 47%, Prop 62 would have abolished the death penalty in California. Despite the loss, Levine is currently lobbying again for another ballot measure.

“California’s death penalty is a failed relic of a failed criminal justice system,” said Assemblyman Levine of the death penalty four years ago. “The death penalty does not deter serious crime, has been overly applied to minorities and has proven to be an expensive and flawed exercise in justice.”

Today, California stands exactly here: It’s still a very polarizing issue among voters, with politicians such as Governor Newsom wanting to end it, with others wanting to keep it. Many voters also feel deceived over Prop 62, with others who used to oppose it now praising it.

“It’s reaching a boiling point again. Fast,” noted former defense attorney Jorge Cordero. “Since 1977, when California renewed the death penalty, only 13 have been executed. And every decade there’s several new murders who face death but don’t get it that anger the public. Bittaker and Norris, the Night Stalker, even more recently the Golden State Killer when he was caught.”

2016: The year of the two propositions

“2016 was a big year for it when 62 and 66 were on the ballot, and voters did what they always do: they kept it by a narrow margin, but also added somehow lessened it for those on death row. California’s demographics have always been changing, but a touch more are always for the death penalty. 2016 was nearly identical to 2012’s Prop 34 results.”

“Now it’s still about even, but Levine and others want to bring it up.”

“In my opinion we’re going to see this on the ballot again in the next few years, and again, it will be close. The Governor and prosecutors, some in blue areas, are fighting over this. It only leads to one thing every time this has happened since the 70’s.”

“California is more liberal, but they also have a population that believes in strong justice. Many want to be humane, but many want a deterrent, despite evidence that it doesn’t. California is the most liberal state, yet they still have something that you would only expect in the most conservative.”

“We’re going to see it real soon, there’s so much fighting over it right now.”

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Evan Symon
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