Death row – An Irishwoman’s Diary on California’s moratorium on the death penalty

You can still visit San Quentin as a tourist but you can’t actually go inside the gas chamber as before

You can still visit San Quentin as a tourist but you can’t actually go inside the gas chamber as before

 

No grateful cheers erupted from death row’s 744 convicts after new Californian governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on execution by lethal injection.

“Lifers” were too busy at rehearsals for Happy Days or singing Johnny Cash songs.

Or could have been too busy working on “the Q’s” Prison Arts show for Alcatraz, taping podcasts, guitar coaching, writing memoirs, jazz appreciation, life-class painting, or any other classes run by the creative Golden Gate National Parks folks.

You can still visit San Quentin as a tourist but you can’t actually go inside the gas chamber as before – a notice saying “Closed” has been nailed up on the “North Seg” (death row is a name never used there). There hasn’t been an execution since 2006. In 1992 I went to see it when Robert Alton Harris was scheduled for execution and was struck by his classic foetal-alcohol features, but couldn’t bear it and went to his funeral instead.

Gavin Newsom’s announcement came after his swearing in – a touching ceremony, not only because his teddy-clutching two-year-old was climbing his leg as he took the oath.

Newsom’s reasoning wasn’t just that executions are prolonged and expensive (true), many convicts are mentally ill (true), and usually men of colour on minor charges, that DNA testing sometimes proves innocent.

Newsom opposes execution on the simple grounds that it’s a sin to kill. “If someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better. And I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing – knowing – that among them will be innocent human beings,” declared the former bon viveur, now a tousled-headed father of four. Supporters of capital punishment said he’d rebuffed Californians, who’d rejected abolition of the death penalty. In 2016, they even passed Proposition 66 to speed up executions. Newsom is anti-guns, pro-immigrant, and just back from an El Salvador trip to discuss solutions for the migrant crisis. While Donald Trump cut aid to Central America, Newsom pledged $5 billion (€4.4bn) to humanitarian charities, adding $1.6 billion for Salvador and a new San Diego shelter.

* * *

Like earlier Democrat governors Pat and Jerry Brown, Newsom comes from very traditional Irish Catholic stock and has always been anti-death penalty. Last governor Jerry Brown was a liberal who made criminal justice reform the flagstaff of his two terms. He’d stopped executions in his first term helped by his district attorney, Rose Bird. Previous governor Pat Brown (Jerry’s own father) dithered over sentences like a “Tower of Jello”. Jerry pleaded with him to lift executions, including that of Caryl Chessman who robbed and twice raped women (non-fatal assaults are capital offences in California). Governor Pat ruled on 59 last-ditch appeals, commuting 23 and sending 36 to the “little green room”. Then he decided execution was barbaric and wrote Public Justice, Private Mercy, A Governor’s Experience of Death Row, which is a a powerful read.

Chessman was a psychopath and was another loser in life’s birth lottery. His name (Danish for Charles) subjected him to teasing and his family life was wretched. But he was smart and needed money. He never killed, just robbed. Governor Pat stayed execution seven times.

At the eighth, a last-minute appeal from his son Jerry got to the governor – along with Eleanor Roosevelt’s, Ray Bradbury’s, Jessica Mitford’s and more. The appeal lost by four to three, so Governor Brown let the execution proceed. At the last minute he changed his mind again. Rumour has it that a clerk misdialed his “stay of execution” call. Pat Brown never forgave himself.

Later, a condemned man wrote a plea to Pat, saying: “There’s so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best.” He was a black man. Outside the “Q”. the American Nazi Party had a banner that said “Gas – the only cure for black crime.” Does this melodrama remind you of His Girl Friday, classic newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht, in which a power-hungry mayor hangs an accidental killer on election day? Times have not changed. Now 744 condemned men hope this reprieve may become permanent.

* * *

Ironies abound. In the 1990s I was volunteer cook at Mother Theresa’s Aids hospice, and met a transgender diva who did time for robbing “johns”. Dolores had been expelled to the care of the Sisters for misconduct. This was her real punishment. Dolores was woken for 5am Mass, and all day threw bricks through shop windows in hopes of being returned to jail. She missed the “Q” and had no intention of dying without drugs. They refused her morphine and she had no income to buy any. Dolores wanted to be executed.

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