Psst: Jerry Brown is Opposed to the Death Penalty


Jerry Brown, who convinced his father the governor, in 1960 to temporarily spare the life of Red Light Bandit Caryl Chessman, and who joined a vigil to protest the execution of cop-killer Aaron Mitchell in 1967, said last week it’s a “good thing” that a measure has qualified for the November ballot seeking to outlaw the death penalty.

Brown wouldn’t tell reporters whether he’s for banning capital punishment or not. But you don’t have to be an expert in Teilhard de Chardin to understand that the governor would like never to be in a position to have to stay an execution.

As he promised during his campaign, Brown had not (yet) supplanted voters’ approval of the death penalty with his own longtime personal opposition. In fact, his office said last week — explaining his order to prison officials to explore using a single drug for lethal injections — “My administration is working to ensure that California’s laws on capital punishment are upheld and carried out in conformity with our statutes.”

Said Brown, borrowing from Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain “Death and taxes are things we can’t avoid, so it’s good that people get to weigh in occasionally.”

The governor – whose No. 1 priority is to win approval of a ballot measure to raise income and sales taxes to repair California’s bleeding budget – obviously doesn’t want to engage on another public front, especially not one of his own making.

He is, after all, a firm believer in tantum quantum – doing only what is required to accomplish one’s principal goal and maintaining a sense of Ignatian indifference toward other, non-essential means and goals.

Right-wing shifts: True, a boatload of conservative voices now oppose capital punishment – including “Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California’s death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system.”

But the history of California’s attraction to the death penalty, as documented by the Field Poll, suggests voters maintain their support:

Keep it End it





































On the other hand, the Field Poll found that this year, for the first time since the poll started asking the question 11 years ago, more voters say they would prefer that someone convicted of first-degree murder should serve life without the possibility of parole versus the death penalty – by a margin of 48-40%.

“There has been a change in attitude,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “Twenty-two years ago, the death penalty side argument prevailed by a large majority. Now voters are divided in their opinions on many statements, including the cost of death versus life in prison, does a life sentence actually guarantee they will stay in prison, whether innocent people are executed, and their views of how it is administered to the ethnic population.”

The KPFA tapes: One person whose attitude, we suspect, has not changed is Jerry Brown. His behavior – as attorney general and governor – suggest he accepts that certain pressures to enforce the will of the people go with the job. But what we know about Brown is that while his behavior might change, his underlying religious, philosophical and sociological views are pretty much as they’ve been for decades.

It was in 1996, for example, as recounted in the Berkeley Hills book “Dialogues,” that Brown recounts his own comments about capital punishment during radio interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book upon which the film “Dead Man Walking,” was based:

We are faced with the question of the death penalty nearly every time we vote, either in specific crime-related measures, or by candidates promoting their stand for or against capital punishment. This question is nothing less than the test of our humanity, of how we see ourselves and others, and how we define the role of the state.

Not much different than his outlook had been 36 years earlier when, in a story recounted by Roger Rapoport in “California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat & Jerry Brown.”

One of those most bothered by the moral issues involved in the Chessman case was a U.C. undergraduate named Jerry Brown. The student’s concern caused him to get on the phone twelve hours before the scheduled execution and ask his father to grant a reprieve and request that the legislature pass a two-year moratorium on capital punishment. “You’re not going to let Chessman die, are you? The ex-seminarian asked his father.

“There isn’t a chance in a thousand that the legislature would do it.”

“If you were a doctor and hand a chance to save a man’s life – one chance in a thousand – wouldn’t you do it?”

Pablo, Marlon and Steve: Pat Brown did grant the temporary reprieve and sought a moratorium. Despite lobbying by the likes of Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Aldous Huxley, Marlon Brando, Shirley McLaine and Steve Allen, the Senate Judiciary Committee defeated the death penalty moratorium by a vote of 8-7. Chessman died in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Jerry Brown, too, would later face a crisis on the death penalty as governor when, in 1977, the legislature overturned his veto of a bill that sought to restore capital punishment in California. He also got to see the woman he’d appointed chief justice of the California Supreme Court – and who overturned every death penalty case that came before her – tossed off the bench in 1986 by a crushing 67-33% vote.

With 17 states already banning capital punishment, with no state able to demonstrate that the death penalty is equitably applied and with new research suggesting we have no idea, really, whether the death penalty deters anyone, California just might be poised to save billions and ban state-sponsored death. But don’t look to California’s First Objector to lead the charge.

At this stage in his life, Jerry Brown – who has been quite tough on other forms of crime issues – has no reason to hide his views on the death penalty. Save one: his dedication to the teaching of St. Ignatius, in particular “Age quod agis” – “Do what you are doing” – and “tantum quantum” — “so much as needed.”

Don’t expect any more.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    What proponents of the death penalty fail to realize is that people they want to kill will stop suffering when they die. When instead the killers are forced to live out their lives in prisons, they are forced to live with their criminaity every day. Surely that is a greater punishment, for those seeking vengeance.

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    I made an interesting discovery some years ago when I briefly edited a magazine targeted to the justice system. As editor, one of my jobs was to interview a law-enforcement professional every month. I was stunned to discover than none of the people I interviewed backed the trends for harsher sentencing and more prison time.

    One county sheriff summed it up pretty well when he told me the vast majority of the people he sees in county jail have other problems that drive their criminality. He said investing in drug treatment, educational support, and job training would do more to lower the crime rate than more cops or harsher sentencing. He told me that any kindergarten teacher in the state could tell you who the at-risk kids in her class were: the ones who showed up hungry, ill-clothed, bruised, or had a family member in jail. He finished by saying there were some people who were, for whatever reason, just bad. Threatening them with prison or death would not deter them. And letting them out, ever, was a mistake.

    All the people I interviewed also agreed that our laws about crime and punishment are driven more by the desire to get votes than by the desire to cut crime. They told me that proven programs are underfunded and ones that make good “tough-guy” soundbites get all the money, even though law-enforcement professionals know they don’t work. These days, decisions are also driven by the for-profit prison industry and the money it provides.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.