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Governor a Long-Term Participant in Politics of Capital Punishment

August 20, 1985|JOHN BALZAR

SACRAMENTO — For a young assemblyman, it was a disturbing loophole for robbers who couldn't shoot straight.

So George Deukmejian, with less than a month in the state Assembly, took it upon himself to introduce a bill to send to the gas chamber armed robbers who attacked their victims. The bill--which was defeated--would have made the robbers eligible for the death penalty even if their victims escaped unhurt.

Then as now, Deukmejian, California's governor and the state's leading champion of capital punishment, believed that executions are "appropriate" in civilized society and that they recognize the sanctity of life.

In a recent interview, Deukmejian reflected on more than two decades of political struggle on behalf of capital punishment.

Before his election to the Legislature in 1963, Deukmejian recalled that he heard a stirring speech on the need for capital punishment by one-time prosecutor Lynn D. Compton, now a state appeals court justice.

Later, upon taking office as a 34-year-old assemblyman from Long Beach, Deukmejian was assigned to what was then called the Criminal Procedure Committee. A bill was placed before the committee to abolish capital punishment.

Legislative Package

"I began at that stage to really look into it more deeply and to do as much research as I could," Deukmejian recalled. Before the month was out, Deukmejian introduced a package of anti-crime legislation, including his bill that would have permitted death sentences for some armed robbers.

Sounding somewhat uncomfortable with the memory, Deukmejian explained that he was not after a sweeping law to execute thieves, but a statute that would punish equally those armed robbers who assaulted and failed to kill their victims and robbers who did kill.

"The reasoning behind that legislation was that if an individual has the intent to kill someone and, let's say, they take a gun and aim it and fire and miss. The idea of my legislation was that we're trying to deter that kind of act. . . . Just because they happen to be a bad shot, it didn't seem to me that the death penalty should not apply."

Over the years, as the death penalty alternately burned and dimmed in the political debates of the days, Deukmejian never lost interest.

Led Initiative Drive

He led an initiative drive in 1972 to restore the death penalty under terms acceptable to courts, which had ruled the previous statute unconstitutional. He authored the 1973 law to implement the new constitutional standards, and rewrote it again in 1977 to try to meet court-imposed requirements.

"I do feel it will deter some people," he said. "I recognize that it certainly will not deter everyone. . . . And for those people who are not deterred, and who willfully and deliberately in premeditated fashion take the life of another, that is an appropriate punishment.

"And finally, I think if you believe life is sacred--and I do--I think we have to do everything that we can as a society to protect the lives of innocent people. And we have always had a graded form of punishment in our penal system. You pay a fine if you get a traffic ticket. You are sentenced to a couple of years in prison if you commit an assault. And when someone takes the life of another, that person is, in effect, going to forfeit their life."

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