SACRAMENTO — California voters would have the opportunity in June, 1986, to overrule recent court decisions and expand the death penalty under legislation approved Monday by the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
In an unusual turn of events, two Democratic legislators sponsored the death penalty measure and another Democrat cast the key vote giving the bill the bare minimum of four votes required for passage.
This was the first time in at least five years that the Public Safety Committee, historically a graveyard for such measures, gave its approval to strengthening the state's capital punishment law.
"It is indeed a historic occasion," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, also a Democrat, who helped draft the measure and testified in its behalf.
Civil libertarians and defense attorneys strongly opposed the bill, arguing that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on non-whites and that it does not serve as a deterrent to crime.
Opposition From ACLU
"We are adamantly opposed to any expansion of the death penalty," testified Marjorie Swartz, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill, jointly authored by Assemblymen Gary Condit (D-Ceres) and Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), would overrule a variety of court decisions that, over the years, have found sections of the death penalty initiative of 1978 to be unconstitutional.
Advocates of the bill said it would revive elements of the law thrown out by the California Supreme Court and lower courts, including:
- Restoring two offenses, mayhem and rape with a foreign object, to the list of "special circumstances" under which the death penalty could be imposed.
- Allowing the uncorroborated confession of a murder defendant to be used by the prosecution to establish that special circumstances existed, thus making the accused eligible for the death penalty.
- Prohibiting a trial court judge from throwing out a jury finding that special circumstances were present in a murder case.
In approving the Democratic measure, the committee rejected a bill by Republican Assemblyman Phillip Wyman of Tehachapi that would have required the California Supreme Court to report to the governor and prosecutors when a death penalty case was not decided within 150 days.
Another element of Wyman's bill would have required the Supreme Court to give capital punishment cases priority over all other cases.
Support From Republicans
Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra) joined with three Republicans on the committee to approve the Condit-Katz measure, a compromise hashed out late Monday.
Passage of the Democratic version comes at a time when the Supreme Court is under fire from conservatives for weakening the death penalty and delaying capital cases.
Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices--all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--face confirmation in November, 1986. The death penalty has already become a major issue in the election.
Democrats are taking up the traditionally Republican death penalty issue because, as Katz put it: "The victimization of people knows no party line. A criminal does not ask party registration."
Reiner added: "Too many Democrats in the past have not come to grips with the single most important social issue of our time--crime. Now we are seeing a welcome change in Democratic elected officials."