The gulf between Americans who oppose and those who support the death penalty has been deep and wide for decades.

So it came as no surprise when the response in Kern County was sharp and immediate Wednesday following Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement that he has placed a moratorium on the executions of 737 death row inmates in California.

"Today, Gov. Newsom announced that he will not enforce California's constitutionally mandated death penalty in any case," Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said at a hastily scheduled press conference Wednesday afternoon.

Newsom, she said, granted a reprieve to all 737 current death row inmates.

"By his actions," Zimmer said, "the governor casts aside the verdicts of every jury from all over the state that found that the death penalty was appropriate and required by law as well as every ruling by every judge affirming those convictions.

"The governor's action today is an insult to families and friends of victims who were viciously murdered at the hands of these inmates," she continued.

It's also an insult, she said, to the judges and juries involved in those cases and to the people of California who two years ago voted "not only to retain the death penalty, but to institute reforms to ensure its continued, more effective application."

Indeed, in 2016, more than 53 percent of California voters — and more than 69 percent of Kern County voters — opted to reject Proposition 62, which would have replaced capital punishment with life without parole.

The same year, Proposition 66, designed to speed up death penalty appeals, was passed by 51 percent of voters across the state.

Kern County Public Defender Pam Singh, reached late Wednesday, said the governor's decision to abolish capital punishment in California is not out of the mainstream but a reflection of falling public support for the death penalty.

"The public in California is divided on this issue," she said.

Those who defend individuals facing a charge of murder, as Singh and many of her deputies have, approach this issue from a position of experience.

"Once you've done a homicide case, and you come away with a not guilty verdict," she said, "it makes you wonder about the death penalty."

And when you see scores of cases across the nation involving men who have been exonerated by DNA evidence — after spending years of their lives in a tiny prison cell due to convictions based on flawed eyewitness evidence — the finality of capital punishment weighs even heavier, she said.

Besides those moral and legal objections, Singh said, capital punishment is tremendously expensive, in the courts and in the corrections system.

According to Zimmer, there are 25 inmates on death row who were tried and convicted in Kern County — out of 550 inmates convicted in Kern currently serving sentences for murder.

That's less than 5 percent, she said. That's because the ultimate penalty is reserved only for the worst killers.

Randall Dickow, the retired director of the Kern County Bar Association's Indigent Defense Program, said Wednesday that the governor's action was long overdue.

"Life without possibility of parole is the more appropriate sentence," Dickow said. "In my opinion that is more of a punishment.

"The death penalty has been shown not to be a deterrent and it costs the taxpayers millions," he said. "It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s cheaper to house inmates than the cost of appeals — and they’re being housed anyway."

Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican whose 34th District includes most of Kern County, said in a statement that honoring the will of voters is the lynchpin of democracy.

"The voters of California made their position clear twice regarding the death penalty," Fong said. "No individual elected official should unilaterally defy the public’s will and the democratic process.

"The ongoing pain and emotions experienced by the family and friends of victims of some of the most horrific crimes we have seen in our state should matter and must be heard.”

Bob Levoy, brother of murder victim Barbara Levoy, is one of those family members. Levoy has been waiting for the execution of Ward Weaver Jr. for the better part of four decades.

"I'm very disappointed that he hasn't been executed yet," Levoy told The Californian in 2014.

It's a sentiment he has shared multiple times over the years since Weaver admitted in 1982 that more than a year earlier as a long-haul truck driver he stopped, ostensibly to help a couple, 23-year-old Barbara Levoy and 18-year-old Robert Radford, whose car had broken down along Highway 58 east of Tehachapi.

Weaver asked Radford to help him with something in the back of the truck. He then clubbed Radford to death with a metal bar, kidnapped Levoy, raped her, and took her to his home in Oroville where he tied her to a tree. He told investigators he planned to take her with him on his next trip.

But Levoy angered him when she bit his finger. He strangled her and buried her in his backyard.

Weaver tried to make a deal with prosecutors, saying he would lead them to 26 other victims if they would waive the death penalty. Prosecutors declined, leaving open the question of whether the information Weaver withheld might have brought a measure of closure to the families of individuals who went missing or were found dead all those many years ago.

As it stands now, it seems probable that Weaver, 75, will die in prison of natural causes, rather than by lethal injection.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(9) comments

Bodysnatcher

Now would be a good time to implement The Star Chamber.

Churchillis1

Scott Peterson sends his respects, Mr. Governor.

And lest we forget, Murdering Charlie Manson died of old age (decades after many of his victims) in a Kern County Hospital due to the last moratorium on death penalties.

REMUDA

Afraid for his own life, perhaps, as he defies, defiles and re-defines CA Law?
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Utah has a firing squad (non-robotic would eliminate the 'human factor')--Wartime--seems appropriate for 'the treason reason'.
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In "olden days", the 'public' reality of beheadings, guillotine, draw & quarter, immolation, hangings (no 'humane' gas, chem or electric) was more openly severe to dissuade repetition of crimes AGAINST humanity (or 'the state'), in addition to cost differentials of "death row" (Tower of London, Devil's Island, etc.) vs life W/O parole (Manson--TV, internet, food, clothes, exercise, visitation/"conn"ubial ???).
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These days, "let the punishment fit the crime" is confused with the extended lives of some, suffering (or not) in confinement, or the mercy of quick (sorta) death releasing the pain of (victims and perps' families alike) memories of those who are guilty, but penitent (that's where 'penitentiary' came from) . . .vs those who feel no guilt.
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These days, the personal (and personnel) involvement factor is an issue since many couldn't 'push the button' (like me, but . . . ), but . . . the law's the LAW. And what if my baby was the perp's victim . . . ?
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Can't decide . . . (as it's still the public's call)?

Here's a few choices:

https://www.balancedpolitics.org/death_penalty.htm

https://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=002000

Stephen

As detestable as those on death row may be, we should join the rest of the civilized worlds and end that penalty. It doesn't deter evil behavior, is excessively costly and, when a mistake is discovered, an undoable penalty. The governor should just go ahead and commute their sentences to life without possibility of parole.

When the people speak, they don't always speak wisely. There's a difference between considered judgement and emotion. The death penalty, and it support, comes not from the first but from the latter.

Or, considering the fate of "Whitey" Bulger, for the most detestable among the detestable set them up so some cellmate can do the job in what had every appearance of an extrajudicial execution. That he got what he so deserved no one protested. And it sure saved the taxpayers a lot of money.

RICHARDFITZWELL

It would actually be cheaper to kill them immediately following all appeals than to keep them on death row for 30 years. So killing everyone on death row currently would save us a bunch of money. We don’t need the cocktail, that’s what’s expensive. Firing squad is cheap and many of us, including me, would sign up to do it.

Steelerman

@RICHARDFITZWELL It's blindingly obvious by your remarks that you are not really interested in saving the taxpayers money and bringing some kind of closure to the victim's families. You appear to have this desire to fulfill your twisted view of justice or biblical need for revenge or retribution. Being as eager as you seem to be to killing someone, even horrible people, speaks to lack of character and inhumanity. I'm almost certain your request for signing up for a firing squad makes you falsely believe that you are tough or something nonsensical like that, but it does not. It reflects a sad and angry person who needs help.

Boris25

What is the great shock? California hasn't executed a death row inmate in 13 years. If they started tomorrow executing a death row inmate once a month, it would take approximately 65 years to execute the current death row inmates, and that's not allowing for new inmates to be added. The death penalty is a joke in California, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning and dying than being executed for a crime in California.

mrdwm1

As much as I'd like to see the death penalty kept and it's entire process sped up, the simple fact is that in today's California, that is not ever going to happen. Apparently maintaining these animals on death row is prohibitively expensive. So why is not just throwing them into a max security/isolation cell forever, with no privileges or visitation such a bad idea? There's plenty of room in the Mojave for new concrete cellblocks.

WIZARD

In case you don’t remember, it has been 13 years since anyone has been executed in California.

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