Long history of California death penalty debate


San Quentin’s execution chamber has been the centerpiece of a legal and political tug of war stretching back more than half a century.

If history is any guide, the debate is not likely to end with Governor Newsom’s moratorium.

Some of their names have faded from memory; Caryl Chessman, Aaron Mitchell, Robert Alton Harris, Clarence Ray Allen and Rose Bird — Four condemned men and the first female Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

All of them playing a role in the history of capital punishment in California.

May 2nd, 1960 – Convicted robber, rapist and kidnapper Caryl Chessman died proclaiming his innocence as cyanide fumes filled the execution chamber at San Quentin.

Chessman spent nearly 12 years on death row, writing best-selling books and winning the support of authors, artists, and intellectuals from around the world.

In 1967, Aaron Mitchell became the last person to die in San Quentin’s gas chamber — Protesters calling it social murder.

Less than three months later a federal judge issued a stay of all executions in California.

Five years later the State Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional.

Notorious criminals like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan were taken off death row.

In November, voters reacted by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 17 and reinstating capital punishment but executions did not resume.

California’s Chief Justice Rose Bird was a one woman roadblock.

“She has voted on death penalty cases 55 times. And 55 times she has voted against death.”

In November 1986, California’s first female Chief Justice added another first — The first to be voted out of office.

The door to the gas chamber was open again, and in 1992 Robert Alton Harris became the first prisoner put to death in California in a quarter-century.

A dozen others followed Harris, the most recent, in 2006.

“Clarence Ray Allen was executed after spending 23 years on death row,” says KRON4’s reporter Alecia Reid.

Since then, the state has spent $850,000 on a new execution chamber, described by Reid.

“There are three rooms surrounding the death chamber. One of the victims family, one for the inmates family and this room for the witnesses and the press,” Reid said.

That new execution room being dismantled and put in storage.

Just a few years ago, Californian’s voted down a death penalty repeal, so there’s no guarantee it won’t be used again.

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