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...

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