Another Deaf Governor

Governor Gray Davis has turned a deaf ear to Cardinal Roger Mahony. Like Governor Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who recently vetoed a historic bill passed by both houses of her state's legislature calling for the abolition of the death penalty, Davis is dead set on death.

Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, one of the princes of the church in which Davis claims membership, called on the governor to institute a moratorium on capital punishment in California until a bipartisan commission can assess "the inequities, weaknesses and biases" in the system. "(O)ur support for victims and their family members is not diminished by imposing a moratorium on the death penalty," Mahony insisted, instead it "is recognition that we cannot heal society as we continue to administer a system that is fatally flawed."

Citing the example of Governor George Ryan of Illinois, who created a sea-change in the political climate around state killing by instituting a moratorium after a series of death row exonerations in his state, Mahony suggested that "California has no less an obligation to conduct a thorough assessment of its system."

Like George W. Bush of Texas, the serial-killer governor who asserts total confidence that none of the 131 men and women dead by his hand were wrongly convicted despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Shaheen and Davis cling to the shakier-by-the-day conviction that a "tough on crime" posture is the road to political glory. The See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil of the politics of death, this trio of governors smugly ignores growing public discomfort even as evidence of error becomes undeniable.

Bush, the Texan whose smirk masks a mean streak betrayed by his mocking of Karla Faye Tucker's plea for mercy, hopes to ride his bloody bronc to the White House. Shaheen, who some say hopes for a V.P. nod from Al Gore, blew her chance to demonstrate leadership by instead playing the death card. And Davis, whose lust for power is bankrolled in part by his Correctional Officer's Union, keeps his hard-ass credentials visible at all times, recently poking fun at his own Board of Pardons and Paroles - itself a tough crowd inherited from his Republican predecessor - for being weak-kneed enough to recommend monitored release for an inmate.

Davis, who has already cracked the whip on judicial independence by suggesting any judges he appoints should back his view on the death penalty or resign, shrugged off the Cardinal by noting that the death penalty is the law and he will carry it out. It is, of course, the law in Illinois as well, but Governor Ryan, like Cardinal Mahony, seems to think there's a moral imperative involved when a lethal system shows signs of dysfunction. As Mahony noted, "(t)he arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is sometimes applied; the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income persons on death row; the fiscal burdens borne by penal institutions; and, most disturbingly, the mounting evidence that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to deaht - all these factors have sown considerable doubt in the minds of elected officials and the public at-large."

Davis' prosecutors argue that California's system is far more efficient than those of other states, much more protective of the rights of the accused and therefore unlikely to yield the kinds of mistakes that so embarrassed Illinois' prosecutors and infuriated its governor. While they may insist that such is the case, it would be hard to convince Jerry Bigelow, Patrick Croy, Troy Lee Jones or Lee Perry Farmer, all released from California's death row after having had their efficiently prosecuted cases completely debunked.

Or DeWayne McKinney. Charged 19 years ago with the murder of the manager of a Burger King in Orange County, McKinney was tried and convicted, bases largely on the testimony of four young eyewitnesses, employees at the restaurant the night of the crime.

The victim and the witness/employees were white, McKinney is black. The eyewitnesses were shown photographs of McKinney before they picked him out of a lineup. They were told by the police that the likely perpetrator would be in the lineup. They were fed false information about McKinney - that he was part of a violent street gang whose members has to commit crimes in order to stay involved, that he was caught with the proceeds of the robbery and that the clothing described by the witnesses on the night of the crime were found in his car. These allegations, all untrue, were never shared with the defense.

The prosecutor, with the full measure of the devotion demanded of those pursuing justice in California's so-efficient system, insisted the death penalty was the appropriate response to a crime so vicious. Because only eight out of the twelve juroros were so persuaded, DeWayne McKinney was sent to prison for the rest of his life, without the possibility of parole.

And there he languished for 19 years. Two years ago, a man who knew the true perpetrators of this awful crime could no longer live with the guilt he felt at the wrongful incarceration of McKinney, contacted the Orange County Public Defender's Office. This act set in motion a chain of events that finally resulted, in January of this year, in an official acknowledgement of McKinney's innocence, and his release.

Had his prosecutor been more efficient in pursuit of a death sentence it's unlikely DeWayne McKinney would be alive today. And if that were the case, Governor Davis and his minions could continue to insist that our system doesn't make these mistakes.

As it is, they have to close their eyes and ears to the truth and hope the public doesn't notice. Unfortunately for them, Cardinal Mahony has.

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