During the last four decades, no California political issue has burned more intensely than capital punishment, but it may have ended with a whimper, rather than with a bang, last week.
Federal Judge Cormac Carney ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it’s rarely used – thanks largely to ceaseless legal challenges from its opponents, one should note.
Another irony is that Jerry Brown – a lifelong foe of capital punishment – was governor when it dominated the Capitol in the 1970s, and he’s governor again as Carney’s ruling more than likely ends it.
The death penalty had overwhelming public support in the 1970s as the state Supreme Court blocked it twice and the Legislature re-enacted it twice, once over Brown’s veto.
A 1978 ballot measure seemingly was the last word. But Chief Justice Rose Bird, who had been appointed by Brown, and other liberal justices blocked all 64 death penalty cases that reached them on automatic appeal.
Bird paid the price for her stubborn opposition in 1986, when voters, by a 2-1 rate, denied her confirmation to a new term and ousted two liberal colleagues.
It took six more years for the state’s first gas chamber execution in more than 25 years, however. And the execution of Robert Alton Harris, the killer of two 16-year-old boys, merely fueled new legal battles, with a shift of focus from the penalty itself to the execution method.