Critics have sometimes dismissed me as a right wing conservative, but one should keep in mind this is Santa Cruz County where the policies of JFK would also be frowned on for being too conservative. Similarly, what were once condemned as card-carrying Marxists are now gently swaddled with terms like “progressives.” These are confusing times of shifting definitions. Democrat is the only partisan registration I’ve ever had; but as a wiser person than me once said, I didn’t leave the Democratic party, it left me.
What brought me to such thoughts is Prop. 34, another attempt by California to replace the death penalty with life sentences without parole. In the simple world of stereotypes, death penalty advocates would be profiled as conservative. If so, I fail that test by being a lifelong death penalty opponent. I truly envy those who view such issues as black and white, because I’m usually groping in a gray haze of uncertainty.
In the blissful world of stereotypes, conservatives are assumed to be pro-death penalty and anti-abortion. If so, I fail the political litmus test again, being a Planned Parenthood contributor for decades, and I recognize the apparent inconsistency. How can you accept legally administered death at one stage of life while rejecting it at another? The answer: With great internal torment.
The alternative of supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion, however, is equally conflicted. I suppose with both positions, the mercy in one position helps assuage guilt with the other. Back in 1998 I wrote a column supporting Democrat governor candidate Gray Davis over Republican Dan Lungren, which puts to rest more of my right wing credentials. My main expressed reason was Lungren’s anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment stance, which I snarkily described as “Let everyone be born — we can always kill them later.”
In fairness to Lungren, his concerns were shifted towards the innocent unborn instead of convicted murderers. To that I have no defense for my contrasting position, other than to say that gut issues like abortion and the death penalty usually come from that part of us beyond reason or debate, and which flatly tells us something is either right or wrong. End of discussion.
My public thoughts on the death penalty go back decades to the days of Governor Ronald Reagan when the death penalty was temporarily abolished in California. Reagan was having a hissy fit over the moratorium and Santa Cruz County D.A. Peter Chang was expressing the frustrated view that “there are some incredibly evil and malignant people who must be dealt with in an unusual and harsh manner.”
I attempted to rebut pro-death penalty arguments based upon deterrence, economics and vengeance in a 1972 Register-Pajaronian letter, including the comment: “Capital punishment’s worst feature is its terrible permanence. With a life sentence, the wrongly convicted at least has the rest of their life to prove their innocence. But with capital punishment, all hope for justice dies when the cyanide pellet is dropped. My conclusion in a single sentence is that capital punishment is an ineffectual, hypocritical and contagious barbarism which creates more aggression than it suppresses.”
There is a local connection in the fact that a prominent backer of Prop. 34 is former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions. That harkens back to Watsonville resident James Holohan, the namesake of our Holohan Road. He was warden of San Quentin in the 1930s when executions were still by hanging, and at many hangings he supervised, Warden Holohan was heard to mutter angrily: “This has got to be changed.”
Despite his retirement as warden being partly due to a savage beating he received during an attempted prison break, Holohan carried his revulsion over the death sentence through a successful campaign to the state senate, where he authored legislation replacing hanging with the gas chamber as a more humane means of justice. And now former warden Woodford is attempting to take Holohan’s wishes an additional step forward. Who better to judge the rightness of a policy than those who have had to administer it?
Four centuries ago, English poet and priest John Donne wrote a meditation declaring that no man is an island, that we’re all part of a whole, and that everyone’s death diminishes each of us. I think of those lines and their tolling bells whenever a person is executed, and mourn for myself along with the condemned.
For I know that I am a full member of society. And every time society performs an execution, my hand is also on the lever, switch or syringe. With Prop. 34, I may finally pull my hand away from all that.
Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.
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