Editor’s Note: The authors are district attorneys in California. Anne Marie Schubert is the Sacramento County district attorney. Michael Hestrin is the Riverside County district attorney. Lisa Smittcamp is the Fresno County district attorney. Gilbert Otero is the Imperial County district attorney. The views expressed here are theirs. View more opinion on CNN.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s blanket moratorium on California’s death penalty is a slap in the face to crime victims and their families who have waited years for justice. With the stroke of his pen last month, Newsom singlehandedly undermined our state’s democratic values and our criminal justice system.
Democracy embodies a government where the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives. In California, the people have exercised their power repeatedly in voting to keep the death penalty for the state’s most horrific killers. In fact, less than three years ago, California voters made this clear when they rejected an initiative, supported by Newsom, to abolish the death penalty and instead passed an initiative to ensure its fair and efficient implementation.
When Newsom campaigned for governor, he explicitly asserted that he would respect the will of the voters regarding the death penalty. So much for that promise. Instead, Newsom disregarded the voters in favor of his personal opinion and granted leniency to those facing the death penalty, including serial killers, cop killers, mass shooters, baby killers and sexual sadists.
In doing so, Newsom damaged the very fabric of our criminal justice system – trial by jury – where community members, not just one person in a position of power, make decisions affecting life and liberty. Newsom’s unilateral decision to ignore jury verdicts imposing the death penalty is not just an arbitrary exercise of power, it is a gross miscarriage of justice.
In support of his moratorium, Newsom also made broad sweeping statements, often cited by the American Civil Liberties Union and other death penalty opponents, including cautions about racism and claims that some on death row may be innocent.
If Newsom has concerns about specific cases, he should examine those cases individually rather than granting mercy to everyone on death row. After all, Newsom has the powers of clemency and commutation as a remedy if he sees actual proof that someone was wrongfully convicted.
But looking at the facts of cases isn’t something Newsom seems to want to do. Why? It could be because the facts are so horrific that one cannot justify leniency to these killers.
One only needs to read about some cases, like those of Robert Rhoades and Albert Brown, to understand why juries and judges imposed the death penalty for these murderers.
Rhoades is a convicted serial rapist and killer who, in 1984, kidnapped, raped and murdered 18-year-old Julie Connell, who disappeared after going to a park to read. Her body was found dumped in a horse corral. Her throat had been slit. His sadistic crime spree continued for years and involved sexual assault of children, one as young as 4 years old.
In 1996, his barbaric crimes culminated with the murder of 8-year-old Michael Lyons, whom Rhoades kidnapped while the boy walked home from school. Rhoades sexually assaulted and tortured Michael for hours before he slit his throat. Two juries gave Rhoades the death penalty in 1999 and 2007. He deserves no leniency from Newsom now.
Albert Brown deserves no leniency either. Brown was a serial rapist who sexually assaulted two girls (ages 11 and 14) in the mid-1970s. A few months after being paroled, he kidnapped 15-year-old Susan Jordan while she walked to high school in Riverside County. Brown dragged her to an orange grove where he raped and sodomized her before strangling her with her own shoelaces.
After stealing Susan’s identification, Brown called her mother, taunted her that she would never see her child again and then told her where she could find her daughter’s body. Like so many other killers given undeserved mercy by Newsom’s decision, Brown earned his death sentence.
Newsom’s moratorium is disheartening to victims and their families who have waited years for justice – justice that judges, juries and voters agreed was warranted for these horrific crimes. This autocratic decree was a disgraceful day for democracy.