A Little Bit of Progress

Becky O'Malley
Monday March 18, 2019 - 03:52:00 PM

Finally, some mildly encouraging political news, after close to sixty years.

Although I am a member of U.C. Berkeley’s class of 1961, I didn’t go to my graduation in June of that year. In those days, the senior class was small enough that all of us would fit into the Greek Theater, but a substantial number of my classmates didn’t intend to go into the event. Instead, they planned to picket the ceremony in caps and gowns, protesting the commencement speaker, California Governor Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown Sr.

What did they have against him? In May of 1960 he had allowed Caryl Chessman, author of a widely read memoir, to be executed for kidnapping and rape crimes which did not include murder. Many around the state had protested Brown’s decision not to reprieve Chessman’s death sentence, including another member of the class of ’61, his son Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. I don’t know if Jerry went to our graduation or picketed it, but he is on record as having persuaded his father to grant a 60-day stay before the eventual execution, for all the good it did.

Jerry was a couple of years older than me, having detoured along the path to the A.B. for a year at Santa Clara and another one in the Jesuit Novitiate before transferring to Cal. No one in the literary/political circles I hung out with knew him. I had fast-tracked through college via summer school, finishing my course work in December of 1960, and by graduation day I was 21, married, living in San Jose and teaching farmworkers’ kids. I figured there would be other opportunities to protest the death penalty, and boy, was I right.

I certainly didn’t realize that it would take the rest of my life for a California governor to acknowledge the fundamental immorality of a civilized society deliberately killing human beings. Yet it’s taken just about my whole lifetime, to drive this point home, two generations. All my daughters and one of my granddaughters have already graduated from college, and the question is still on the table. 

Jerry Brown eventually got to be governor himself, not once but twice. Not coincidentally, no one was executed during his terms, though he did not succeed in getting the death penalty abolished. But there were executions between his terms, under Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis

Both Jerry and the new governor are products of Jesuit education, a tradition famous for teaching its students how argue all sides of a moral issue. When I was in high school in Los Angeles, the debaters from the Jesuits’ Loyola mopped the floor with tournament opponents.  

( One of them, David Roberti, went on to become the President Pro Tem of the State Senate, but ultimately lost out in public office because the gun lobby opposed his efforts to enact gun control and some feminists took issue with his personal opposition to abortion. You can't please everyone.

Both Brown and Newsom have debated the wisdom of capital punishment with the public over the years. 

At this juncture, neither of them appears to be a slavish adherent to Catholic doctrine. Jerry doesn’t seem to go to church any more often than I do, and Gavin has a record of technically verboten divorce and remarriage, not to mention a well-publicized adultery incident. But I’d wager a small sum that both have been influenced by the gradual evolution of the church’s position on the morality of the death penalty. Last August the Vatican announced a revision of the official record of contemporary church policy, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which now says that capital punishment is no longer admissible under any circumstances. Further, the church is now committed to abolition of the death penalty world-wide. 

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope in recent memory, and his rationale for opposing capital punishment is predictably logical and persuasive. The Vatican announcement he approved notes that non-lethal methods of preventing repeat crimes have now evolved to the point of being unnecessary, and also that the possibility of the criminal’s contrition must be preserved: “..more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. ” 

Gavin Newsom has said the same thing more succinctly: The death penalty is “ineffective, irreversible and immoral.” His decision was couched in terms of personal morality, his belief that he will not in good conscience be able to permit anyone to be executed on his watch. He has taken no action which would preclude future governors from legally approving executions, however.  

The concept of revenge doesn’t enter into this kind of moral analysis. Some of my own Puritan ancestors believed that retribution was important (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), but at least one strand of the complex Catholic tradition stresses repentance over revenge, and that’s what Newsom’s decision is pointing toward.  

And there are practical considerations as well. One major flaw with capital punishment, it has always seemed to me, is the lost opportunity to figure out what went wrong in the tortured brains of mass murderers. This weekend’s horrifying slaughter of Muslims in New Zealand should prompt both psychologists and moralists to question why it happened and how things like this can be stopped. If Timothy MacVeigh had not been executed for the Oklahoma bombing, we might have benefited from talking to him about what went on in his twisted mind. It’s clear that executions do nothing to deter such criminals, and we might learn something from them, as we did from Chessman. 

Instead, Jerry Brown and I have just about used up our respective lifetimes protesting what we knew, way back when, to be immoral. Gavin Newsom has at least stopped the clock for his own tenure. But now it’s time to finish the job, to amend the California constitution so that future generations don’t have to keep fighting the same battles.  

Two competing and confusing initiatives on the topic were on the California ballot recently. Voters narrowly supported retaining the death penalty in those elections, but recent polls show that the majority of voters now oppose it. While Governor Newsom’s moratorium is in place, the state legislature should put a clear and well drafted amendment before the voters, supported by an adequate informational campaign, so that we can abolish this “ineffective, irreversible and immoral” policy once and for all. I for one am tired of protesting it after about 60 years.