California’s Death Penalty

California’s Death Penalty

THE RECENT FAILURE to abolish the death penalty in California by initiative petition reveals something about liberal politics today.

In February 1960, there seemed to be an excellent chance of repealing the state’s capital punishment law. Governor Edmund Brown had just reprieved Caryl Chessman for sixty days. People all over the world were demanding that Chessman be freed; the question of capital punishment was in the air. Newspapers, magazines and television stations, particularly in California, were carrying discussions about the issue. It was being argued on buses, in the office, over coffee, at luncheons, even at Rotary Club meetings.

In this atmosphere of controversy, George T. Davis, one of Chessman’s attorneys, a group of University of California professors, and some prominent abolitionists began consideration of the immensely formidable task of collecting the signatures of 450,000 registered voters on petitions to put the question of the death penalty on the November ballot. Davis set up The People Against Capital Punishment, Inc., and asked the professors to start organizing. But the academic mind is often hesitant and indecisive, and the professors were slow in agreeing to plans of action. By state law, the signatures had to be gotten and validated by June 20 if the issue was to go on the ballot. In light of the pressing time factor, a group of people from the Monterey Peninsula, most of whom had never mixed in politics before, started on their own. They drew up a petition, filed the necessary $200 with the attorney general, printed thousands of petitions at their own expense, and began circulating them.

Under the leadership of Richard Drinnon and Christian Bay, the professors and the Bay Area committee got going in March. They discovered that, according to law, the Monterey petition was the only one allowed in the field and that there were questions about the legality of its wording. However, civil liberties attorney Francis Heisler argued that a judge wouldn’t rule against the obvious wishes of 450,000 people who had signed in good faith. The wording, Heisler said in a widely circulated letter, did not misrepresent the intent of the petition and he pointed to previous cases in which judges held petitions legal if there was no misrepresentation.

When I came into the campaign in March at the request of Fritjof Thygeson, a socialist and an A.F. of L. organizer in the Bay Area who two years before had run for the U.S. Senate, there already existed scores of anti-death penalty groups. They seemed to be waiting for us, wanting to do something but not knowing how or what to do. The petition, it appeared, was their answer.