California and the Death Penalty

WHEN Gov. Pete Wilson denied clemency to convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris late last week, he cleared the way for the first execution in that trend-setting state in 25 years. If Harris is killed in the gas chamber at San Quentin as planned, that event may tend to legitimize capital punishment nationwide.

At this writing, a federal judge had temporarily stayed the execution.

Governor Wilson's decision is in line with the views held by a majority of Californians and Americans. It's popular, but the resumption of executions is not enlightened leadership.

Thirty-five states have the death penalty, but only 19 have used it since the US Supreme Court restored it in 1976. This year three states - Wyoming, Delaware, and Arizona - carried out their first executions since the high court ruling.

Executions have mainly taken place in the "tough justice" South, especially Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia. Those supporting capital punishment may seek to use its restoration in a high-profile state like California to advance their cause. Yet California's experience should serve to do just the opposite.

The death penalty is repugnant for substantive moral reasons and for reasons of procedural justice.

In moral terms, opposition to the death penalty is not equal to being "soft on crime." Many death row inmates have committed heinous crimes. They should not be allowed to rejoin society without total reformation, and life sentences without parole may well be appropriate.

Why not kill them instead of paying for their incarceration? The Mosaic commandment not to kill is a fundamental guideline that society ought to observe. State-sanctioned killing denies the possibility of rehabilitation and condones the use of violence.

Procedural objections: First and foremost, the chance of executing the innocent. Texas last week narrowly stayed the sentence of a man whose brother may be guilty. Prior to that, the state said it would examine new evidence after the execution.

Second, "insanity defenses." The high court has ruled that persons insane during a crime may not be put to death, though if restored to mental health they then can be. This is inconsistent.

Third, equitable treatment. Is it fair for citizens to be jailed in Iowa but executed in Texas?

Today, politicians rush to support the death penalty. It offers a quick and seductive promise that law and order are back. Its deterrent effect, however, is an equally baseless promise.

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