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Conduct Unbecoming to a Gubernatorial Candidate : Politics: Van de Kamp's quest to prove his death-penalty mettle lent a circus-like atmosphere to Harris' attempts to escape the gas chamber.

April 08, 1990|Joe Scott | Joe Scott is a Los Angeles political journalist

The stay of execution granted condemned killer Robert Alton Harris hours before he was to die in San Quentin's gas chamber guarantees that death-penalty politics will remain a lively issue in the Democratic race for governor.

Harris' fate is especially vexing for Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. In 1974, when a federal public defender in Los Angeles, he told a congressional subcommittee that capital punishment was a "blot on the American system of justice." At last year's state Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, he reaffirmed his personal opposition to the death penalty but vowed to enforce it so long as it was the law in California.

Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, his primary foe, also once opposed capital punishment. While a member of the state women's parole board in 1965, she doubted that the death penalty could be applied fairly and that it, in fact, deterred crime. Since then, Feinstein has come to believe that increased violence and the breakdown in the criminal justice system justify executions. In the now legendary TV spot that catapulted her into the poll lead, she declares herself "the only Democrat for governor for the death penalty."

Van de Kamp responded with an ad showing the door of the San Quentin gas chamber slowly opening as a voice intones: While Los Angeles district attorney and state attorney general, he "put or kept 277 murderers on Death Row."

Which brings us to the candidate jockeying over Harris' fate. Feinstein charges that Van de Kamp is trying to exploit the case for political gain. He angrily denies any such intention, but his conduct leading up to Harris' previously scheduled execution suggested that political expendiency got the best of his professionalism.

As if to demonstrate his steeliness in carrying out the law, Van de Kamp likened Harris' appeals plight to a baseball team down to its final out. "Until the final out is made, the game is on," he said. A poor choice of analogy for a sincere death-penalty foe.

Van de Kamp had also converted his Sacramento office into a kind of death-watch "command post." He held daily press briefings on the status of Harris' appeals until the killer's stay was granted, using photos of Harris and mug shots of every Death Row prisoner as props.

Such behavior is in sharp contrast to Van de Kamp's earlier reluctance, as Los Angeles County district attorney and state attorney general, to be quoted on the death penalty. It also contrasts with the conduct of his two Democratic predecessors in the attorney general's office, now-state Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk and the late Thomas Lynch. Mosk, a death-penalty foe, was attorney general when Caryl Chessman was executed in 1960. Lynch, who favored capital punishment, held the post when Aaron C. Mitchell became the last prisoner executed in 1967.

"There was no hoopla like now" leading up to executions, recalled Alameda County lawyer Charles O'Brien, chief deputy attorney general for both Mosk and Lynch. Both Mosk and Lynch, while not running from the press, depended more on their chief deputies and specialists in the criminal division to deal with death-penalty cases. Both left it up to the governor's office to make statements.

A former press aide to both Mosk and Lynch could recall no briefing or news conference on even the most publicized executions. "At no time did either of them ever call a 'photo-op' session," the aide said.

True, Mosk and Lynch were not running for governor. But running for governor is no justification for turning the circumstances surrounding a man's life, murderer though he be, into a political circus. Van de Kamp should have the courage of his conviction and resist the temptation to prove, over and over again, that he'll uphold a law he personally opposes.

Matt Fong, 35, son of Democratic Secretary of State March Fong Eu, might be wondering whether it pays to switch party allegiance. After managing his mother's successful 1986 reelection campaign, he joined the Republican Party to oppose Democratic incumbent Controller Gray Davis this November.

But Fong flunked an important litmus test of the endorsing convention of the California Republican Assembly, the state's most conservative grass-roots organization: His support for abortion rights was deemed latently Democratic. But given the fates of some previous CRA-endorsed candidates--Ed Davis and Mike Curb for governor, Robert Dornan and Sam Yorty for the U.S. Senate--Fong may not be missing the rewards of such an endorsement.

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