A group of current and former prosecutors -- including the author of the state’s 1978 death penalty initiative and Ira Reiner, whose office sent dozens of people to death row when he was Los Angeles County’s district attorney -- endorsed a moratorium Monday on executions in California.
The group sent a letter to members of the state Assembly on the eve of the first hearing on a bill that would place executions on hold for two years while the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice examines the problem of wrongful convictions in the state.
The 13-member commission was created by an act of the Legislature last year, and includes proponents and opponents of the death penalty.
“The execution of an innocent person is unacceptable, and it is imperative that California takes every precaution that it never happens,” the letter states. “This is not just a matter of justice for these individuals. It is a matter of public safety.... If an innocent person is convicted, that means that the true perpetrator may well still be free to commit more crimes.”
In addition to Reiner, who served as Los Angeles County district attorney from 1984 to 1992, signers of the letter included Sacramento attorney Donald Heller, author of the 1978 Briggs initiative that created the state’s death penalty statute; Jon Willis, a deputy district attorney in Imperial County; Michael Hennessy, the sheriff of San Francisco County; and former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin.
Some of the signatories oppose the death penalty, and some favor it as a philosophical matter but have developed concerns in recent years because of revelations that individuals slated for execution were wrongfully convicted, the letter states.
“We agree that a temporary suspension of executions in California is necessary while we ensure, as much as is possible, that the administration of criminal justice in this state is just, fair and accurate,” the letter states.
In New Jersey on Monday, lawmakers approved a suspension of executions, becoming the first state legislature in the country to do so since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
Heller, in an interview, said his opposition to the death penalty, from both a “practical and moral perspective,” had developed in the years after he left the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento.
He acknowledged that “the California death penalty law had met constitutional muster.... I think it was written to provide a fair method. In practice it has not worked out that way.”
“There are too many variables law can’t control,” Heller said. Prime among them, he said, is the quality of representation a defendant receives in a capital case. Heller said that since being in private practice, he has observed “a lot of marginal and submarginal lawyers.”
In contrast, Reiner said in an interview Monday that he still favored the death penalty as a philosophical matter, and is scheduled to debate actor Mike Farrell, a longtime death penalty foe, later this week.
But Reiner quickly added: “I don’t see any appropriate argument against a brief moratorium on executions while the death penalty process in California is examined very carefully by serious people.”
“If the state is going to have the moral authority to take a life,” he said, “it has to be done when there are no questions about the fairness of the trial.”
Proponents of the moratorium said that California has released at least six men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death during the last 25 years.
David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., said his organization is opposed to the moratorium bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sally J. Lieber (D-Mountain View) and Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood).
“We are not persuaded that the capital punishment system in California needs reform,” LaBahn said.
He also said the organization believes there is “no need” for a moratorium in the state and that two prosecutors -- George Williamson of the Solano County district attorney’s office and Dane Gillette, chief of the California attorney general’s office -- plan to testify against the bill today in Sacramento.
California has the nation’s largest death row, now numbering 646 residents. However, since the 1978 law ushered in the modern death penalty era, only 12 people have been executed. The gap between the time they were sentenced and put to death averaged 15.9 years, LaBahn said. He added that the cases are reviewed very thoroughly by courts in California.
Clarence Ray Allen, 75, who arranged a triple slaying in 1980 while in prison for another murder, is scheduled to be executed next Tuesday, and it is anticipated that a judge soon will set a date for the execution of 46-year-old Michael Morales, who raped and killed a 17-year-old girl in 1981.