Although I’ve been active in the Democratic party since the tender age of ten, when I stood outside of the Mill Valley Safeway handing out Clinton flyers, I’d never been to a Democratic Convention until last weekend. As an alternate delegate, I went to the convention primarily to assist with a campaign called “CUT THIS: The Death Penalty.” The goal for the weekend was to pass a resolution calling on Governor Jerry Brown to convert the sentences of all the death row inmates to permanent incarceration and thereby save tax payers a billion dollars in the next five years. With the convention starting on the heels of the Governor’s statement last Thursday that it would be “unconscionable” to allocate $395 million to a new death row facility in the midst of the State’s budget crisis, I had high hopes that CUT THIS would succeed.
To me, the resolution was a simple and necessary step. California’s death penalty system is riddled with problems: execution of innocents, insufficient resources for defense attorneys, biased trials, and the list continues. But the Resolution Committee was not so easily swayed. To them, the resolution raised a ghost from the past that would blind voters and lead to the downfall of the Governor.
The Resolution Committee chair waved a picture of Rose Bird, former California Supreme Court Chief Justice who was removed from office by voters, as he called for a vote to table the resolution. The audience began to hiss. “This isn’t 1986 anymore” cried out the brunette standing next to me. Exactly, I thought. At the time of the Conservative smear campaign which depicted Bird as anti-death penalty and ultimately contributed to her removal from the bench, both California and National politics were much different than they are today. Back then it may have also been political suicide to support fair pay for women or a black man for president.
The national decline of support for the death penalty has become a regular headline in the past few years. Executions have dropped since their one-time high of 98 in 1999 to 46 last year, and there have been over 138 exonerations from death row since the mid 1970’s, leading the public to question the accuracy of capital trials. With legislation to either abolish or limit the application of the death penalty introduced in 19 states this year, including some of the more conservative states such as Texas and Georgia, anti-death penalty sentiment has become a trend. Perhaps the resolution committee should have taken note of the recent poll conducted by David Binder Research showing that 64% of Californian’s (including 58% of Republicans) support commutations of the 713 death row inmates. Hopefully, these facts will be considered by the Executive Board of the California Democrats this July when they meet and revisit passing CUT THIS.