Nation’s Death Rows Wait Decision Of Supreme Court
Tuesday, April 6th, 1971
SAN FRANCISCO, Apr. 6 — As you drive toward San Rafael the turn-off to the right says San Quentin, and there is the great yellow stone prison shining in the brilliant California sun like a Crusaders’ castle on the distant horizon. As the sleek cars swish by it is hard to realize how much horror, pain, hatred, are penned behind those walls.
Death row now holds 95 condemned men. Along with everything else, California holds the record. Florida, with 72 prisoners awaiting execution, is an outclassed runner-up.
The sentences of death pronounced against the four defendants in the Manson trial gives this booming state a big spurt ahead. Charles Manson and the three young women who were the principals, on the bloody night that saw five corpses strewn about the lawn and house of actress Sharon Tate will presumably join the others on death row after all the appeals have been heard. This monstrous accumulation presents the Governor, the Attorney General and the Parole Board with a riddle that seems to have no answer. Do you send 99 persons to their death one after the other in the gas chamber? And is such a spectacle any real deterrent to the crime and violence rampant here, as almost everywhere throughout the country?
The accumulation results from the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has not yet passed on two challenges to the legality of the death penalty. Until the court hands down its decision the total will grow, and what will happen if the death penalty is upheld is anyone’s guess. The most recent execution in California was two years ago, and the last woman was executed at San Quentin in 1962.
The national total by the latest count, pre-Manson, was 631 — Louisiana and Ohio with 42 each and Illinois 31. Nine states – Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin — have abolished the death penalty. The Supreme Court must rule on whether a jury has the right to impose death without pre-set standards determining its imposition. This is a ticklish legal question, and an opinion may raise almost as many doubts as it resolves.
The Manson trial, now ended after nine months, threw into sharp relief the sickness of so many of the dispossessed and alienated young drawn as by a magnet to the Pacific slope and the legend of the Golden West. The four young women of the Manson “family” with shaven heads, sitting down outside the Los Angeles courthouse and threatening to immolate themselves unless their master is freed, are an incredible commentary on the state of the Union.
Commissions galore have spelled out the clogging of the courts, the hideous overcrowding of the prisons, all the dire consequences of the law’s delay. The Manson trial cost the City of Los Angeles a million dollars. And as it dragged on week after week and month after month, generating sensational headlines and extensive television coverage, the man from Mars might well wonder whether this was the way to arrive at a fair and impartial verdict.
So much that ought to be done remains undone. The papers here are full of the discovery of the riddled body of a 17-year-old girl who had been hitchhiking. The police are holding two men in whose motel room they found a collection of guns and some drugs.
The elemental reform of a law requiring the registration of guns is blocked by the gun lobby, the most powerful in the nation, funded by the gun industry. The lobby’s pat response is that murder can be committed by means other than guns. In the night of the long knives in the Sharon Tate house the gun did not figure. Yet in an estimated 90 percent of the murders committed in this country a gun was the instrument. Right-wing extremists see in gun registration a sinister plot to turn the country over to the Communists. This is the thin edge of paranoia, reflecting the suspicion and distrust that are part of America’s sickness. There is slight evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. An estimated 40 percent of the robberies and holdups in San Francisco are committed by heroin addicts desperate for a fix. These addled, men would hardly be deterred by thoughts of the gas chamber.
Perhaps the very multiplicity of the condemned will be a block to wholesale execution. Sirhan Sirhan is in the San Quentin death row for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Will he be executed, and will Dennis McGautha, whose case in one of those before the Supreme Court, be given the alternative of life imprisonment for killing, the proprietor of a small market in Los Angeles? This is one for the wisest Solomon nowhere in view.
By MARQUIS CHILDS