Death Penalty Ban Assailed by Reagan; State to Appeal
Saturday, February 19th, 1972
Feb. 19 — The state Supreme Court’s ruling against the death penalty Friday relit all the old arguments and drew hard statements pro and con from California lawmen, lawyers and elected officials.
“I’m deeply disappointed and somewhat shocked by the decision,” said Gov. Reagan in San Francisco where he was to attend a regular meeting of the UC Board of Regents.
“The court is setting itself up above the people and their legislators,” the governor added.
“In a time of increasing crime and increasing violence in types of crime,” Reagan argued, “capital punishment is needed, the death penalty is a deterrent to murder and I think the majority of people believe the same thing.”
But former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, a prominent death penalty foe, said in his Beverly Hills law office that the decision was “correct” and “will do more to expedite criminal trials than anything in the last 100 years.”
Brown said the death penalty has never been a deterrent. “In states where the death penalty is in force,” he asserted, “there are more murders than in states which have abolished it.”
Chief of Police Edward M. Davis was attending a meeting in Phoenix but issued a statement through his office here.
Although the majority opinion was written by a Los Angeles jurist and Reagan-appointee Chief Justice Donald R. Wright, Chief Davis referred to the jurisdiction as the “San Francisco Court.”
“This action by the San Francisco Court,” said the chief in his statement, “showed a total disregard for the innocent victims of homicide and welfare of not only policemen and prison guards but also of the average citizen who frequently finds himself barricaded in his own home because of the realistic fear of criminal violence.
“Murderers sentenced to life imprisonment are eligible for parole, back on the streets, after seven years,” he said. “The decision of the ‘San Francisco Court’ is bound to result in the slaughter of many California citizens by an army of murderers who have been waiting for years in Death Row for such an unrealistic judicial judgment.”
Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger was in Washington and not available for comment but Asst. Atty. Ron George said a petition for a rehearing will be filed in two weeks.
“I’m surprised that the California Supreme Court would come down with the same issue that is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court,” George said. “It certainly seems bizarre timing.
“I also want to point out that they (the court) didn’t reduce the death sentences to life imprisonment without possibility of parole,” George said.
“They made no mention of that, so the sentences become simple life sentences. That could mean that people like Charles Manson (convicted in the seven Tate-LaBianca murders) and Sirhan Sirhan (murderer of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy) could be on the streets in seven years.”
Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, recuperating from open heart surgery, said the decision was in “direct opposition” to his personal beliefs “based on a lifetime career in law enforcement.”
He said he believes capital punishment is a deterrent to certain crimes.
But he added that he feels the subject of capital punishment is of such vital importance to all citizens that they “should have an opportunity to express by referendum their feelings on the issue.”
Dist. Atty. Joseph P. Bush was out of town, on vacation, and not available for comment.
But his opponent in upcoming elections for the district attorney’s post, Vincent T. Bugliosi, chief prosecutor of Manson and Charles (Tex) Watson in the Tate-LaBianca murders, said he was “extremely concerned at the prospect that Manson and Watson may again prey on other victims.”
Bugliosi warned that “what we have to do now is come up with a satisfactory substitute penalty, such as life imprisonment without possibility of parole.”
He said “we cannot afford to have people such as Manson and Watson set free. They place absolutely no value on human life.”
Mayor Sam Yorty, in a brief press conference, said the decision did not surprise him. He termed it “judicial legislation” and added that he did not believe the death penalty has been administered fairly.
“If you had enough money,” he said, “you’d be able to avoid the death penalty.”
Associate Justice Marshall F. McComb, 77, lone dissenter from the decision, said he was so upset by the outcome that he left the court in San Francisco while it was still in session.
“I had to get away,” he said.
In Sacramento, a number of legislators said such a decision should be made in the Legislature rather in the courts.
And Sen. George Deukmejian (R-Long Beach) immediately announced that he would sponsor a constitutional amendment that would let the Legislature prescribe the death penalty for certain crimes.
Assemblyman Alan Sieroty (D-Beverly Hills), death penalty abolitionist, said the decision was “a historic example of the vitality of our constitutional form of government.”
Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti (D-North Hollywood), said the decision was “courageous,” with the court “acting as the conscience of the people of California.”
He added that the decision “lifts a terrible weight from millions of our citizens who are repelled at the thought of the state taking a human life in their name.”
Assembly Minority Leader Robert T. Monagan (R-Tracy) said the decision surprised him and “ought to shake up the public.” He said the decision would probably be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The 102 men on San Quentin’s Death Row were certainly happy about the decision,” said Joseph O’Brien, prison information officer.
“But there were no shouts or demonstrations after they heard the news on the radio,” he said. “They just talked to themselves about it.”
Anthony Amsterdam, Stanford law professor, and San Francisco attorney Jerome Falk,”who represented Robert Page Anderson in the death penalty case decided Friday, at a press conference in Palo Alto praised the decision and took issue with some of Reagan’s criticism.
“The significance of the decision,” said Amsterdam, “is that it is the first judicial recognition of the evolution of civilized standards of decency in contemporary society which has come to condemn death as a penalty for crime.”
In reaction to Reagan’s remarks on the court’s placing itself above the people and Legislature, Amsterdam said, “this is the kind of vicious and unreasoning rhetoric expected from a political demagogue.
“The decisions…is within the proper scope of its (the court’s) function and its responsibility to enforce a Constitution which preserves the rights of individuals against abusive legislative actions.”
Falk said, “It has long been apparent to anybody who follows the administration of justice that the existence of a death penalty…has clogged the administration of justice and imposed a burden on the courts far beyond any value claimed for it.”
In San Francisco, Angela Davis’ attorney, Doris Brin Walker, said the decision would enable her to move for her client’s release on bail.
She argued before Superior Judge Richard E. Arnason, presiding over Miss Davis’ forthcoming trial in San Jose on murder, kidnap and conspiracy charges, that with elimination of capital crimes, Miss Davis should be eligible for bail. Arnason took the motion under submission and indicated he would rule Wednesday.
A. L. Wirin, chief counsel for the Southern California America Civil Liberties Union, hailed the decision as a “major break-through in the struggle to outlaw the death penalty through judicial action.”
But Assemblyman Floyd Wakefield (R-South Gate) said he thought the justices should be voted out of office.
And Assembly Republican Caucus Chairman John Shill said he thought the justices who opposed the death penalty “are out of their minds.
“They talk about cruel or unusual punishment,” he said. “What the hell, is somebody looking at the cruel and unusual punishment of a little girl who is raped and killed?”
At a press conference in the office of her son’s attorney, Luke McKissack, Mrs. Mary Sirhan said Friday was “the happiest day of my life…I just knelt on my knees and prayed and thanked God for what He did and the mercy He had.”
Mrs. Vergie Mitchell of Sacramento said she is happy that “the others will not have to die the
way my son did.”
Her son, Aaron Mitchell, executed on April 12, 1967, was the last person to go to the gas chamber before a moratorium on executions was ordered, pending a court decision.
David Seiterle, 31, has been on Death Row longer than any of the others awaiting execution, since early in 1960.
He learned of the decision Friday morning in Riverside County jail, where he is awaiting his fourth penalty trial in the 1959 slayings of a Riverside couple.
“His face lit up in a way I have never seen before,” Seiterle’s attorney, Art Lester, said.
By ED MEAGHER