Waiting for a death-penalty debate


Despite a last-minute delay by the governor, Albert Greenwood Brown is still slated to die this week. Few would mourn the convicted murderer-rapist’s passing, but it would nonetheless be a sad day for California.

Brown, 56, is poised to be the first inmate killed in the state’s new death chamber in San Quentin, built after U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ordered a stay on executions in California in 2006 because its three-drug lethal-injection method appeared to violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Brown’s attorneys say Fogel’s decision last week not to block their client’s execution was rushed, and that even though Fogel is giving Brown the option of a single-drug method that is considered more humane, the judge still hasn’t examined the new death chamber or properly studied new training procedures for the state’s executioners.

They may have a point, but that’s not why we’re disappointed. We had hoped that Fogel’s stay would start a dialogue in California about the death penalty, which is objectionable for a host of reasons, and not just because the three-drug death cocktail may not ease the pain of the condemned. We’d hoped Californians would be shaken by the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 following a conviction based on shoddy forensics evidence, or of the 17 death-row inmates in other states who were exonerated by DNA testing. We’d hoped they would notice that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on violent crime, or that the cost of carrying it out is helping to bankrupt the state, or that most developed nations have abandoned it because of its essential inhumanity.

They didn’t. Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a temporary reprieve that will put off the execution until Thursday at the earliest, he’s a supporter of capital punishment. So are both the Democratic and Republican candidates to replace him. That’s the politically popular choice; a recent Field poll showed that 70% of Californians favor the death penalty. If the gruesome work resumes, we will have only ourselves to blame.