Assembly Republicans and liberal Democrats teamed up in an unusual coalition Wednesday to shelve legislation extending the death penalty to additional crimes.
Republicans, who ordinarily vote for capital punishment at every opportunity, objected to the measure because it did not contain a provision cutting off the salaries of state Supreme Court justices when they fail to act within 150 days on death penalty appeals. The liberal Democrats’ reason for voting against the bill was a lot simpler: They just oppose capital punishment.
The bill also got caught in a political cross fire between the Republicans and the more conservative Democrats, with both contingents eager to take credit for any strengthening of capital punishment.
First, the Assembly Public Safety Committee refused to send the bill to the house floor, thus scuttling it presumably until at least next January. The Legislature will adjourn for the year on Friday.
Then the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Gary Condit of Ceres, tried unsuccessfuly to amend his proposal into another measure already on the floor.
After caucuses by both parties, the full Assembly rejected Condit’s end-run attempt by voting 46 to 26 to shelve his amendments. Liberal Democrats such as Art Agnos of San Francisco united with conservative Republicans headed by Assembly GOP Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale.
With committee members’ minds obviously on the 1986 elections, the hearing Wednesday was filled with political maneuvering by Democrats eager to avoid being labeled soft on crime and Republicans who fear that passage of a death penalty expansion bill could weaken their attempts to tie Democrats to the fate of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird when she faces voters next year.
“I think it’s clearly part of their tactics to blur the issue and to try to shed the image that they are opposed to the death penalty,” Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), chairman of the committee, told reporters. “This is just a desperate attempt by the Democrats to obscure their real position on the death penalty.”
But Condit maintained that Republicans oppose the bill only because they fear its passage would prove a valuable political asset to the Democrats.
“The Republicans are afraid this bill would detract from putting the Democrats and Rose Bird in a defensive posture,” Condit said. Bird’s opponents focus on the argument that as chief justice she has blocked enforcement of the death penalty.
Meantime, Sens. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) and Ed Davis (R-Valencia) launched a drive of their own to place a constitutional amendment on the November, 1986, ballot aimed at restricting the court’s ability to overturn death penalty cases.
The initiative is intended to stop the state court from granting rights to defendants that go beyond those granted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We just don’t think it’s appropriate for California to go further than the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court in defending and protecting the criminal,” Robbins said at a press conference.
Robbins said he hoped the Legislature would place the issue on the ballot. Otherwise, he and Davis will conduct a signature-gathering campaign to place the proposal on the ballot.
Condit’s bill, if it were passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, would be offered to voters for ratification at the June, 1986, primary election. Voter ratification would be required because the bill would amend a death penalty initiative that was approved by the California electorate in 1978.
The bill, passed earlier by the Senate on a lopsided 32-5 vote, would expand the list of “special circumstances” under which prosecutors could seek the death penalty. Added to the list would be murders committed to prevent a person’s testimony in a juvenile proceeding, and murders committed during rape with a foreign object or during an attempt to maim, permanently disfigure or disable.
It also would limit the right of judges to reduce death sentences and permit capital punishment when a defendant intends to kill one person but inadvertently kills another.
Additionally, the bill would lengthen the minimum penalty for first-degree murder to 35 years to life in prison or life without the possibility of parole. Current law calls for sentences of 25 years to life or life without the possibility of parole.
Republicans, trying to explain their unusual position in opposition to a bill that has the full support of the state’s law enforcement community, have alternately assailed the measure as a “sham” and a “lie.” They have argued that any improvement it might make in the death penalty would be offset by what they say are undue delays in deciding court appeals.
“The death penalty is not being implemented by the court,” Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach) said at the committee hearing. “This bill does not address that. This bill does not belong before us as a death penalty bill.”
Although they do not oppose the substance of Condit’s bill, Republicans want to include in any capital punishment legislation a provision withholding the justices’ pay if they fail to act on the final stage of a death penalty appeal within 150 days after it is filed.
But conservative and moderate Democrats contend that Republicans merely are using the lack of such a provision as an excuse for opposing an otherwise sound bill. They argue that these issues should be addressed separately and contend that nobody has proven that 150 days is enough time for the court to decide complicated cases.