California is often viewed as the center of progressive politics in the United States. It has some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country, the strongest pesticide regulations and along with Connecticut the strongest gun control measures. California’s legislature is already working to reinstate the net neutrality measures recently dumped by the Federal Communications Commission, and many cities have spent the last 18 months actively resisting the Trump administration’s siege on undocumented immigrants.
Yet California also has more than twice as many people on death row as the next highest state—746, compared with Florida’s 347. That is the largest population of inmates awaiting execution in the entire Western Hemisphere and two-thirds of the total number of people known to have been executed by their governments worldwide in 2016.
Even a careful observer of the Golden State can be forgiven for not knowing these figures. The state has executed only 13 people since 1992 and none since 2006, when a federal court ruled that California’s lethal injection procedures violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The state has spent the last 12 years trying to revise those procedures. On April 11, several media organizations in California sued the state over the latest rules, saying that the administration of lethal injections would occur out of view of the journalists who witness the executions on behalf of the public.)
“We’ve had such a long lull now between executions,” says Mary Kate DeLucco, communications director at Death Penalty Focus, “that many residents aren’t even aware we have it.”
“We’ve had such a long lull now between executions, that many residents aren’t even aware we have it.”
Twice since 2006, California voters have had the chance to end the death penalty via referenda. Both initiatives failed. In the most recent case in 2016, a proposition to ban executions competed against another to speed up the process of appeals. A week before the vote, pollsters for the Los Angeles Times found that 40 percent of those who supported ending the death penalty were confusing the two initiatives. In the end, the proposal to quicken the process, Proposition 66, passed with 51 percent.
So at a time when much of the country seems to be moving away from the death penalty—2017 saw just 23 executions nationwide, the second lowest since 1991—California may soon begin executing people again.
Among the many organizations working to keep that from happening is the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Since 2009 C.M.N. has been engaging with Catholics around the country to stop the practice of executing criminals. “We’re kind of the convening power,” says the group’s managing director, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, “bringing Catholics who are concerned about these things together and leveraging their impact.”
California has 746 people on death row, or two-thirds of the total number of people known to have been executed by their governments worldwide in 2016.
While their work takes many different forms, one thriving C.M.N. program is the Mercy in Action Project, in which Catholics send letters to state officials on behalf of those soon to be executed, pleading for clemency. “Some are really powerful,” says Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy, “especially when victims’ families reach out and say, ‘Please don’t take another life, this won’t help.’” (You can sign up to join the Mercy in Action mailing list here.)
Their network has “grown exponentially” in the last two years, Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy reports. “We now see upwards of a thousand letters per clemency call.” And last year across the United States there were 18 stays of execution; some were a matter of legal issues, while others involved state leaders stopping the process.
“We feel pretty excited that people feel connected to that effort,” says Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy. “We see our role to really channel that call for clemency.”
Contrary to prevailing narratives, C.M.N. finds that banning the death penalty often enjoys bipartisan support.“What we’re finding is that the death penalty is not a liberal or conservative issue, a Democrat or Republican issue,” she explains. So in Utah, for instance, a recent bill to end the death penalty was sponsored by Republicans, though it ultimately failed to reach the House floor. “They had tons of conservative support,” says Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy.
“There are libertarians who argue the government can’t even properly deliver the mail, how can they execute someone?”
“There are libertarians who argue the government can’t even properly deliver the mail, how can they execute someone? But there’s also just the cost of it [the overall appeals process]. It’s exorbitantly expensive,” she explains.
Despite the results of the 2016 vote, the constitutionality of the death penalty as currently administered in California remains tied up in state and federal court. Proposition 66 has also created new legal issues, the state legislature having used it to pass responsibility for the development of the process of execution to the state corrections agency. “We think this violates the separation of powers,” says Linda Lye, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
“Our elected leaders are responsible for setting policy,” Ms. Lye says. “They don’t want to have to decide the politically unappealing questions like how painful [an execution] should be, how quick it should be. But we think constitutionally they are required to.”
In recent years some have also accused Gov. Jerry Brown, a Catholic who is personally opposed to the death penalty, of dragging his feet on setting executions back in motion. As he approaches retirement in January, others hope he will offer some final gesture of mercy to those on death row. California law prevents him from commuting the sentences of anyone convicted of two or more felonies (the Los Angeles Times reports that over half the people on death row fall into this category) without the support of the state’s Supreme Court. But on his own the governor could potentially offer stays of executions to the rest.
“The good news about California,” says Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy, “is they’ve got some amazing groups on the ground making it really hard for the state to move forward with executions.”
“But we really can’t sit back,” she notes. “If these couple of court challenges were ironed out, we could start seeing people being killed in California within the next year.”
She also admits that grassroots letter writing has its limits. “I’m not going to say a constituent in Kentucky writing to the California governor has all the weight in the world,” she says. “But it does have an impact, knowing that there are others are taking note of what a governor is doing, what their board of parole is doing.
“If you’re not in a state that has the death penalty, you probably don’t think about it that much. But it’s still this practice that we use that’s inhuman and contrary to the Gospel. So really it involves each one of us, and we all have a say on that.”