Returning to a theme that brought him to office, Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday signed a bill that, if ratified by voters, will be the first expansion of California's death penalty law in 17 years.
As he tries to generate support for his struggling presidential campaign, Wilson signed a bill authorizing a statewide vote to extend the death penalty to include murders committed during carjackings and retaliatory killings of jurors.
Criminals "need to understand that if they commit this kind of crime, they will pay for it with their own life," Wilson said.
Wilson plans to sign another bill today in Los Angeles allowing for a statewide vote to expand the death penalty to murders committed during drive-by shootings.
California's death penalty statute, passed in 1978 by initiative, requires voter approval for changes. The governor's action places the measures on the March presidential primary ballot. Passage is likely, given California voters' strong support of capital punishment.
In coming weeks, Wilson is expected to sign dozens of bills, ranging from measures permitting an expansion of interstate banking, to allowing insurance companies to offer scaled-back earthquake policies, to authorizing a March vote on renewed mountain lion hunting.
But Wilson kicked off the process by reasserting the anti-crime theme that has been his most consistent refrain during his five years as governor. Wilson hopes to use the event and others like it to boost his standing in California, where he trails President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in the polls.
Sean Walsh, Wilson's campaign spokesman, called Tuesday's bill signing "yet another demonstration that, while other politicians talk about being tough on crime, Wilson takes action."
"The best prescription for the campaign is to see him taking action," Walsh said. "You see Bob Dole and Phil Gramm talking and getting nothing done in Washington. We can take all these bills to other states and show what we've done."
As Wilson signed the death penalty bill, he took the opportunity to slap at Congress, urging that it approve changes in federal habeas corpus law to limit death penalty appeals.
"There has to be the kind of reasonable limit on . . . appeals so the abuse of the appellate process does not continue to make a mockery of the death penalty," Wilson said.
California has the country's largest death row population, with 420 condemned prisoners, followed by Texas with 401. California has put two prisoners to death since the death penalty was reimposed, both during Wilson's tenure. There have been 99 executions in Texas during the same time frame.
California already has a lengthy list of so-called special circumstance murders that can result in death sentences, including multiple murder and murders committed during robberies, rape or arson.
Carjacking, however, was not part of the lexicon when voters approved the death penalty initiative in 1978. The Legislature made carjacking a separate crime, with stiffer penalties than robbery, two years ago. While murders of jurors are almost unheard of, the death penalty law already includes murders of witnesses to crimes.
The legislation signed Tuesday was authored by state Sen. Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista). Peace, who appeared at Tuesday's press conference, said the bill sends a "cultural message" that such crimes will not be tolerated.
"The first thing we have to do is send them a clear message that there are going to be consequences," Peace said. "Then, perhaps, we can have a greater level of success in our education programs and job training programs."
As he signed the death penalty bill Tuesday, Wilson was flanked by police officers, leaders of crime victims groups, and Pamela Brewer, 20, who held her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Angelica.
The girl's father, Arthur Gonzalez, was killed in a carjacking in Sacramento two years ago--"all because [the killer] admired the rims and trim" of Gonzalez's 1984 Oldsmobile, Wilson said.
The governor called the crime "an inexplicably cruel, senseless act that left behind a 6-month-old daughter and a grieving fiancee."
"Sadly, this story is one of many in a larger tragedy of increasing violence, gang violence, often, that is playing out in the neighborhoods of California," Wilson said.
The governor cited the murder of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, shot Sept. 17 when the car she was in made a wrong turn into "an unfriendly neighborhood" in Los Angeles.
"We cannot continue to experience this kind of violence," Wilson said. "There has to be an end to it. Decent people should not have to live in fear."
Most of Wilson's own legislative agenda stalled this year, including attempts to weaken state environmental laws, cut income and business taxes, overhaul the education code, win $2 billion in funding for more prison construction and limit civil lawsuits.
The governor has 575 bills awaiting his signature or veto, far fewer than the 1,261 that arrived on his desk last year. The reduction stems from the rancorous year in the Assembly, as well as the split in the Legislature, with Republicans controlling the lower house and Democrats holding a majority in the Senate.
Among the many bills Wilson is expected to veto is one permitting medical use of marijuana, and possibly one to prohibit gender-based pricing for such services as hair cutting and dry cleaning.
The governor is uncommitted on measures authorizing state achievement testing for schoolchildren--a concept opposed by fundamentalists--and one requiring that fluoride be added to public water systems to prevent tooth decay.
Wilson is expected to sign a measure permitting authorities to hold sexual predators beyond the end of their criminal sentences and allowing the state to withhold the driver's licenses of people who fail to make child support payments.
As Wilson spoke Tuesday, his voice cracked repeatedly, a problem that has plagued his campaign for the presidency.
"That is the least of my concerns," the governor said of his voice. "My concern is that we continue--whether it is in this campaign or in the kind of ceremony that we are just completing--to make a contribution of the kind that I think will leave the state and country better served."