California Attorney General Rob Bonta sees state move away from death penalty

As lawmaker, Rob Bonta co-sponsored a draft voting measure that would have given Californians another chance to drop the death penalty, a repeal they narrowly rejected in 2012 and 2016.

As California’s attorney general, Bonta still opposes the death penalty, and he believes the state is moving in the same direction.

“I think the death penalty is inhumane. It does not deter. Studies show that this has long had a disparate impact on defendants of color, especially when the victim is white, ”Bonta said in an interview. Three weeks earlier, his former legislative colleagues had confirmed Governor Gavin Newsom’s appointment of Democrat Alameda to succeed Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now US Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Bonta said the death penalty was both irreversible and “fallible,” citing the exoneration and release of many death row inmates across the country – 185 since 1973, including five in California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. . The nonprofit says it has also found “strong evidence” that at least 20 prisoners executed since 1989, all in the southern states, were in fact innocent.

Despite statewide votes over the past decade, Bonta said he believes California “is on its way to abolishing the death penalty.” I believe that is where we are headed, away from mass incarceration, over-criminalization and over-conviction.

“Californians said that with the people they voted for power,” he said.

One of them was Newsom, who declared a moratorium on executions shortly after taking office in 2019. Others included Bonta’s three predecessors as attorney general, Becerra, Kamala Harris and Jerry Brown, all avowed opponents of the death penalty.

But when Californians voted directly on capital punishment, they approved it: in 1972, when they overturned a state Supreme Court ruling that declared it a violation of the state constitution ; in 1978, when they expanded a death penalty law that lawmakers had passed over Governor Brown’s veto; and in 2012 and 2016, when majorities of 52% and 53% rejected initiatives to reduce the maximum sentence to life in prison without parole.

Although Newsom and a group of district attorneys have asked the state Supreme Court to make death sentences more difficult to obtain by tightening standards for jury deliberations and voting in capital cases, no court challenges of the death penalty is only going on in California. So the only current path to a repeal appears to be another voting measure, which advocates say won’t happen until at least 2024.

Things could change if Newsom is recalled and replaced with a Republican, who would almost certainly overturn his moratorium and seek execution dates for more than 20 sentenced prisoners who have lost all appeals of their convictions and convictions. That would reignite a legal challenge to California’s procedures for lethal injections, which a federal judge said 15 years ago were so flawed as to pose an undue risk of prolonged and torturous death.

The state, which has 704 death row inmates, has not executed anyone since January 2006, while 103 convicts have died in prison, mostly of natural causes – 22 since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in last spring. Bonta said he would need more study before deciding whether or not to champion the current method of delivering a single drug.

“Part of my role is to be the steward of the existing law,” he said, but “I will not defend something that is unconstitutional. It has nothing to do with my personal beliefs, ”but rather whether the evidence shows that injection procedures could cause“ needlessly slow and painful death ”.

Bonta will apparently be a more convinced enemy of the death penalty than other senior civil servants. Harris and Brown, for example, have remained publicly silent on the 2012 and 2016 repeal initiatives, and Harris filed an appeal that restored the state’s death penalty law in 2015 after a federal judge ruled that the law was no longer constitutional due to arbitrary delays of 25 years or more in decisive cases.

Bonta’s appointment “bodes well for the state and for those of us who care about this issue,” said Mike Farrell, the former “MASH” star who is chairman of Death Penalty Focus, a Sacramento-based anti-death penalty group.

A challenger in next year’s attorney general election, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said voters shouldn’t expect a strong defense of the death penalty or of its implementation by an opponent like Bonta.

“The will of the voters should matter,” and “attitude can have an impact,” said Schubert, a former Republican who became independent and a supporter of the death penalty. “You say, ‘We are going to defend the death penalty,’ but are you going to delay cases, divert resources from the capital litigation unit?”

She said she was particularly concerned about a bill pending in the Legislative Assembly, AB1224 by Assembly Member Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, which would allow for a review of the death or life sentence of an inmate without the possibility of parole. Levine was the lead author of the draft constitutional amendment to repeal the death penalty that Bonta supported in 2019.

AB1224 would allow a judge to reduce either of these life sentences with the possibility of parole after taking into account the inmate’s age, mental health and prison record. If the detainee has served at least 20 years without any acts of violence, the judge should reduce the sentence unless prosecutors can prove that the detainee would commit acts of violence in the future. Backed by public defenders and opposed by prosecutors, the measure would require the approval of two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law.

By setting aside death and life sentences without parole, “you are destroying families who were promised by judges that these people would never get out,” Schubert said. She said such a long-standing state policy reversal appears to be part of Bonta’s agenda.

Bonta did not take a position on AB1224, but said he would be willing to ask judges to reconsider individual death sentences – provided all parties in a case agree.

He said he plans to work “with district attorneys and the families of victims who together want to approach court to oppose a death row defendant against something else, such as life without parole or some other sentence. “

“I will identify ways to move forward on securing reforms in the criminal justice system in general, and in particular with regard to capital punishment,” Bonta said.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko

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