Opinion

Commentary: Will death penalty be an issue for Whitman, Brown?

Capital punishment has been the bane of the Brown family. As Jerry Brown seeks another stint as governor, it could be decisive.

When the issue arose during Brown's first debate with Republican foe Meg Whitman, he tried to massage it much as his sister, Kathleen, had done during her bid for the governorship in 1994. She acknowledged her opposition but pledged, "I will faithfully carry out our law on executions, and I'll do it with compassion, but I'll do it with great fidelity to the rule of law."

Both Browns' opposition to capital punishment stems from their father, Pat Brown, who also opposed it but oversaw 36 executions as governor.

The most celebrated case involved Caryl Chessman, Los Angeles' notorious "Red Light Bandit." His appeals exhausted after 12 years on death row, Chessman faced execution in 1960, but Pat Brown gave him a reprieve after hearing an anguished plea from son Jerry, then a 21-year-old college student.

Pat Brown asked legislators to suspend executions, but lawmakers refused. A few weeks later, Chessman was gassed. The elder Brown said later that the Chessman case "hurt me terribly" and was the beginning of his political downfall, which came in 1966 when voters rejected his bid for a third term.

Jerry Brown's 1977 veto of a death penalty bill and his appointment of the overtly anti-capital punishment Rose Bird as the state's chief justice haunted him as well, playing a major role in his losing a U.S. Senate bid to Republican Pete Wilson in 1982.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.sacbee.com.

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