Gov. Gavin Newsom’s death penalty moratorium lauded and lambasted
As workers dismantled California’s apple-green execution chamber Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s death penalty moratorium was criticized as a slap in the face to voters and praised as a strike for humanity.
Newsom’s executive order, blocking execution for 737 prisoners on death row at San Quentin State Prison, came just as efforts to hasten executions were beginning to pick up steam in the aftermath of a 2016 ballot measure approved by voters. There has not been an execution in the state since 2006.
“We were close to the end — a resumption of justice in California,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “And then he goes and pulls the rug out. People are outraged because there is nothing they can do about it.”
The state constitution gives the governor the ability to delay executions. At a news conference in Sacramento on Wednesday, Newsom said that, based on studies, he believes one out of 25 people on death row is innocent, odds that he could not accept.
“I can’t sign my name to that,” he said. “I can’t be party to that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” Newsom said.
He said California’s capital punishment system discriminates against the poor, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Newsom’s moratorium can be rescinded when he leaves office.
Trump weighs in
The debate Wednesday raged all the way to the White House, where President Donald Trump tweeted, “Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
The governor’s action was a gut punch to one father whose son was dismembered by a killer seeking money to get married; to a man whose parents were bound, gagged and thrown off a luxury yacht; and to a dad whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped at knifepoint and choked to death.
Steve Herr, whose son, Samuel Herr, 26, of Costa Mesa, was dismembered and scattered by community theater performer Daniel Wozniak in 2010, called Newsom’s action “immoral” and a “cruel joke.” Wozniak also killed another victim in an attempt to obscure his crime.
Edit ‘reopens deep wounds’
“Newsom’s concern for lives of convicted murderers usurps justice for all victims’ families,” Herr said. “Newsom’s edict reopens deep wounds. … Obviously, his personal wishes supersede California law.”
In 2016, voters rejected a measure Newsom supported to repeal the death penalty and approved a competing measure to speed up executions. The governor’s critics lambasted him Wednesday for going against the will of the majority.
Ryan Hawks, whose father, Thomas Hawks, 57, and stepmother, Jackie Hawks, 47, were thrown overboard from their yacht by convicted killer Skylar Deleon in 2004, said Newsom was victimizing taxpayers who funded a dead-end capital punishment process.
“He’s ripping off the families and the taxpayers,” Hawks said. “We were promised justice awarded by the court system that the state never followed through with.”
The day before Newsom announced he was putting California’s death penalty on hold, he invited family members of some death row inmates’ victims to Sacramento to share the news about his difficult decision.
Marc Klaas: ‘Little bit of me died’
“When he told me that, a little bit of me died,” said Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was murdered in Petaluma in 1993. “It’s Trumpian, to me, that you can disregard the will of the people and the law of the land and make some kind of executive decision based on your own personal philosophy.”
Klaas, who lives in Sausalito, argued that Newsom was defending “the worst dregs of our society.” Seeing his daughter’s killer, Richard Allen Davis, executed after more than 20 years on death row would mean “his influence would stop, that I’d never have to think about him again,” Klaas said.
The parents of Riverside police Officer Ryan Bonaminio, who was killed during a November 2010 foot chase, said they were sickened by Newsom’s order.
Bonaminio, who had been on the force for four years after serving two Army deployments to Iraq, was murdered by Earl Ellis Green of Rubidoux. The 27-year-old officer had slipped on wet concrete and fell, and Green struck him in the head with a metal pipe.
Green then took the officer’s gun. Bonaminio, who was able to stand, twice told Green: “Don’t do it.” But Green fired, killing the officer.
Joe Bonaminio, 75, and Gerri Bonaminio, 71, denounced the governor’s decision in an interview Wednesday at their Riverside home, festooned with photos of their son and memorials to him.
“I don’t care about all the … bleeding hearts out there because the bleeding hearts out there have not lost somebody close to them,” Joe Bonaminio said. “They haven’t lost a child … to a murderer.”
Bethany Webb, however, lost a sister.
Laura Webb-Elody, 46, was gunned down in a 2011 shooting rampage that left eight dead at a Seal Beach beauty salon. Bethany Webb said the moratorium was one of Newsom’s finest and most humane moments. Webb noted her sister’s killer did not receive the death penalty because of all the mistakes made in his case by law enforcement.
System is ‘broken’
“Most people don’t understand how broken the system is,” said Webb, 57, of Huntington Beach. She said Orange County’s previous district attorney gave the impression to crime victims that you should “just sit in your hatred and what will set you free is taking someone else’s life.”
Webb said of fellow crime victims’ relatives: “I hope they can find a place that we are better than that.”
Erin Runnion has found that place.
Runnion is a child safety advocate and mother of Samantha Runnion, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered in July 2002. Her killer, Alejandro Avila, has been condemned to death row at San Quentin.
He’ll ‘never hurt another kid again’
Runnion said she has always been opposed to the death penalty, even after her daughter’s murder.
“(Avila’s) sentencing, should it be carried out, is not going to bring me any more peace than knowing he’ll be behind bars and will never hurt another kid again,” she said. “There is nothing that you could do to (Avila) that is comparable to the horror of being kidnapped and murdered at the age of 5.”
Vivian Najera, the aunt of a firefighter killed in the Esperanza fire, said Wednesday she is at peace with sparing the life of the man who set the blaze that raced up the side of San Jacinto Mountains from Banning.
Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted of murdering Daniel Hoover-Najera and four other U.S. Forest Service firefighters on Oct. 26, 2006.
‘God’s place’ to decide
“It’s not my place to decide who dies, it’s God’s place. … I’ve always felt like that,” said Hoover-Najera’s aunt, Vivian Najera.
Najera said Wednesday she “felt comfortable” with Oyler being locked up for life.
The feelings of crime victims are especially crucial because they can sway decisions made by prosecutors, who remain free to seek the death penalty from juries.
In fact, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said his office will conduct business as usual.
“It’s the the law of the land, and I will continue to seek the death penalty when appropriate,” Hestrin said. “The governor cannot change that by fiat.”
‘Takes fight out of victims’
In Orange County, however, newly elected District Attorney Todd Spitzer said, “The governor’s action hurts a lot. (It) takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of people fighting for the death penalty. It takes the fight out of the victims. When victims get frustrated, it makes our job as prosecutors incredibly difficult.”
Reactions from the three Los Angeles County-based members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee split along party lines, with Democrats Reggie Jones-Sawyer and Sydney Kamlager-Dove supporting Newsom’s decision and Republican Tom Lackey opposing it.
Jones-Sawyer, the committee’s chairman, said he welcomed the governor’s move.
“Time and again we have seen the death penalty fail to promote justice,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement, referring to capital punishment as “state-sponsored killing.”
Jones-Sawyer, who represents South Los Angeles, said the billions California spends fighting death-penalty appeals has been “a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
But Lackey, the Public Safety Committee’s vice chairman from Palmdale, said Newsom’s action calls into question his ability to be “a leader for all Californians.”
“It’s disappointing that Governor Newsom would go back on his promise to honor the voters’ choice,” Lackey said on Twitter, adding that Newsom is ignoring not only voters “but murder victims and their families as well.”
“Death row inmates are not ordinary criminals,” Lackey wrote. “They are kidnappers. They are cop killers. They are rapists who murdered their victims. These are the monsters Governor Newsom is protecting.”
Heinous killer awaits natural death instead
Serial killer Lawrence Bittaker might qualify for the monster title.
Stephen Kay, the former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Bittaker, said Wednesday he is still haunted by the case. And he was unhappy with Newsom’s decision.
“Gov. Jerry Brown was against the death penalty, but he didn’t do what Gavin Newsom has done,” Kay said, adding that Brown and other past state leaders instead accepted the will of California voters despite their objections.
Bittaker, who along with accomplice Roy Norris, kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed five teenage girls, most of whom were hitchhiking in South Bay beach towns. The pair used pliers, sledgehammers and ice picks to torture their victims.
Bittaker was condemned to death in 1981, while Norris escaped the death penalty by testifying against his partner in crime. After more than three decades of appeals, Bittaker has turned 78 in prison.
“Bittaker probably hasn’t stopped laughing yet,” Kay said.
Staff writers Brian Rokos, Richard De Atley, Donna Littlejohn, Kevin Modesti and Deepa Bharath and the Bay Area News Group contributed to this report.