Assertions of Killers Going Free Disputed by Bird Aide
Convicted murderers freed to murder again. Misleading as it is, that message has been a recurring theme in the campaign against California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices on the ballot in November.
Repeated by opposition groups in radio spots and press conferences and on videotapes, the message, according to Bird’s chief campaign spokesman, may have led thousands of voters to the mistaken belief that, by overturning 56 death sentences, the Supreme Court has allowed a horde of convicted killers to go free.
“It’s the big lie of the campaign,” said Steven Glazer, Bird’s campaign spokesman. “The anti-court leaders are fear mongers who are misusing their position of trust. They’re engaging in the big lie theory which says if you tell a lie often enough people will think it is the truth.”
Law enforcement officials say that, so far, none of the defendants in the death penalty cases reversed by the court have been released from custody. However, Herbert Wilkinson, the death penalty coordinator for the California attorney general’s office, pointed out that any of the defendants facing retrial could receive reduced sentences or be acquitted.
One Killer Not Paroled
Moreover, convicted killer Charles Allen Green, whose death sentence was overturned by the court in 1980, has already been eligible for parole once. He was not paroled.
The Supreme Court’s record in death penalty cases and, in particular, the chief justice’s record, has been the overriding issue of the campaign against Bird and Associate Justices Joseph R. Grodin and Cruz Reynoso. The court has reversed 56 of 59 death sentences since Bird became chief justice in 1977, with Bird voting to overturn all 59.
The misstatements about the court’s death penalty record go back at least nine months to a radio spot produced by Californians to Defeat Rose Bird, one of the three largest groups campaigning against Bird, Grodin and Reynoso.
The anti-court commercial, which was aired by 19 stations around the state, featured the comments of a woman who had served as a juror in a death penalty case. Referring to the Supreme Court justices, she said: “They’re just letting these killers go back on the street.”
Janet Byers, the media coordinator for the Californians group, said the woman’s statement was an error that was not caught before it was played on the radio.
“What can I say. She said it. We didn’t prompt her. It isn’t what we wanted to say at the time, and it isn’t what we are saying now,” Byers said last week.
But Byers also said she thinks that the woman’s remarks represent “the valid concerns that one or more of these defendants will escape someday, or that a whole lot of their convictions will be declared unconstitutional.”
Last December, another major opposition group, State Sen. H. L. Richardson’s (R-Glendora) Law and Order Campaign Committee, began distributing a videotape that stated that at least one killer has gone free thanks to the court’s rulings.
The tape is available in 500 stores around the state, according to a spokeswoman for Richardson’s committee.
The tape said convicted murderer Rodney Alcala, whose death sentence was overturned by the court, “is a free man.”
Law and Order Campaign Committee spokesmen admitted that the statement was in error and said they recalled the tapes and took out the reference to Alcala.
Glazer contends, however, that another comment along the same lines was left in the tape.
It quotes an assistant San Bernadino County district attorney saying about death penalty defendants, “The murderers frequently receive a retrial and sometimes go free as a result.”
Mike Carrington, an aide to Richardson, said Friday that he could not recall whether the remark remained in the edited version of the videotape.
Two other court critics have made erroneous public statements in the past year about death penalty defendants.
In a radio talk, Robert L. Hymers Jr., pastor of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle in Los Angeles, denounced the court for its death penalty reversals and said the court had “turned loose” defendant Elbert Lee Easley, convicted of murdering two people with an ice pick.
Easley is in San Quentin, according to an official of the State Board of Prison Terms.
Asked about his remark, Hymers said last week that “it may have been something that wasn’t well researched.” Then he said he had meant that the court “turned Easley loose from the gas chamber.”
During a Los Angeles press conference last spring, West Covina Police Chief Craig Meacham, speaking as vice president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said “several convicted murderers who have had their executions stayed or overturned and ultimately sought and received parole not only were set free but went out and murdered again.”
Meacham said later that he was wrong and he attributed his mistake to research based on the Law and Order Campaign Committee’s videotape.
But He’s Still Opposed
“They told me they had made an oops,” Meacham said Friday.
Meacham said, however, that he still opposes Bird, Grodin and Reynoso based on their record of reversals.
The Bird campaign has also taken exception to statements by opponents that certain defendants whose death sentences have been reversed could go free in the future.
In one such instance, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates made such a statement, referring to the convicted murderer of an elderly San Bernardino couple, in an Aug. 11 letter aimed at raising money for the campaign against the justices.
“This man could soon go free,” Gates wrote, regarding the murderer, who was retried last spring and sentenced to life without parole.
Gates defended the letter, saying that, given the court’s record in capital cases, there was good reason to worry that the justices might also overturn a sentence of life without parole.