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Politics

Capitol Journal: The Golden State Killer might be strongest test of Newsom’s anti-death penalty stance

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Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., accused of being the Golden State Killer, appears in Sacramento County Superior Court in June.
(Jose Luis Villegas / Sacramento Bee)

One year ago Wednesday, a former policeman was arrested and accused of being the Golden State Killer who raped and murdered up and down California in the 1970s and ’80s.

If anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s the Golden State Killer — also known as the East Area Rapist, Visalia Ransacker, Creek Bed Killer or Original Night Stalker, depending on the community he terrorized.

He is suspected of raping more than 50 women and charged with 13 serial murders.

“He would break into people’s homes at night and have the wife tie the husband up,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer says. “Then he would tie up the woman. He’d put saucers and cups on the husband’s back as an alarm system and tell him that if, while raping his wife, he heard the cups and saucers move, he’d kill them both.

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“Then he’d rape the wife and kill them anyway. In some cases, their children were at home hiding in the closet.”

Two weeks ago, district attorneys from four counties — Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Sacramento — voted unanimously to seek the death penalty if Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 73, of suburban Sacramento is convicted of the murders.

DeAngelo also is charged with killing a Tulare County journalism professor. But prosecutors have not added any special circumstance counts needed for the death penalty. In addition, he faces kidnapping charges in several Contra Costa County rapes.

The suspect has not entered a plea.

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Any death penalty verdict, however, would be moot while Gavin Newsom is governor. On March 13 — breaking a campaign promise to abide by the death penalty law — he declared a moratorium on executions in California during his tenure. He granted reprieves to all 737 condemned killers on San Quentin’s death row. They’ll stay locked up.

“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” Newsom said. Capital punishment “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown or can’t afford expensive legal representation.”

DeAngelo won’t be discriminated against because he’s black or brown. He’s white.

Newsom also talked to reporters about innocent people being executed. Perhaps so in other states. But no one has ever provided proof of an innocent person being executed in California, at least in modern times. Five have been exonerated on California’s death row, a sign of safeguards working.

A governor could simply spare the life of anyone he suspected of being innocent, although he’d need the state Supreme Court’s permission in the case of someone previously convicted of a felony.

It’s unlikely there’ll be much question about the guilt of the Golden State Killer, however, because of so many murders and DNA linking the victims and the suspect.

And if Newsom thought he was ridding himself of the death penalty issue for the duration of his governorship, he was badly mistaken. The Golden State Killer trial will be warming up about the time Newsom is running for reelection in 2022 or eyeing the presidency soon after.

It’s one thing to make an academic case against capital punishment in the abstract. But when the sadistic details of the killings come pouring out, it could put Newsom in an uncomfortable spot.

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There’ll be people like Ron Harrington of Newport Beach keeping the pressure on for what they regard as justice.

“It’s just a shock to the victims’ families that the governor has done what he has done,” he says.

Not all feel that way, of course. Some oppose capital punishment in all cases. But many feel like Harrington and are on a crusade about it.

The civil attorney’s younger brother, Keith Harrington, 24, was about to graduate from UC Irvine medical school. He and Patrice, 24, a pediatric trauma nurse, had been married only three months. They were living in his father’s beach house near Dana Point in August 1980 when the Golden State Killer slipped inside. He tied them up, raped Patrice and beat both to death with a sprinkler head.

Before leaving, the killer helped himself to the refrigerator, a common pattern in his murders.

“He literally pulverized Patti,” Harrington says. “Dad found them two days later. Dad was never the same.”

How’d the family handle it?

“Emotionally, it’s just something you park away and don’t really want to relive because every time you do it takes a toll,” he says. “Believe me, you compartmentalize it.”

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One thing the family did — mainly another brother, Bruce, a developer — was sponsor a successful ballot initiative in 2004 that required anyone arrested or convicted of a felony to submit their DNA into a data bank. That has helped solved countless cold cases, Harrington says.

“He is the poster child for the death penalty,” Harrington says of the Golden State Killer. “I want to meet with the governor to discuss this. I want him to explain why we’re supposed to be lenient and compassionate with someone just so heinous.”

A spokesman for the governor told me “our office would certainly consider his request.”

California’s death penalty system is so dysfunctional that the Golden State Killer will probably die of old age in prison. There hasn’t been an execution since 2006 and only 13 since 1978. It’s a costly waste. Still voters have decided twice in recent years to keep it. Even expedite it.

Newsom and the voters should get in sync.

More from George Skelton »

george.skelton@latimes.com

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