In the race for California attorney general, Republican Steve Cooley tries to make an issue of Democrat Kamala Harris’ opposition to capital punishment, says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain. “I assure you I will take a leadership role to make sure that the death penalty will be enforced,” Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney, promised this week. Harris, the San Francisco District Attorney, called it “a flawed system,” citing death row inmates who have been exonerated. She promised to uphold the law by ensuring that her deputies continue to prosecute death penalty appeals.
Harris and Cooley are career prosecutors. They understand the law far better than the rest of us. The state has more than 700 condemned inmates. At the rate of executions in the state, Cooley and Harris both know that California cannot possibly empty death row, unless capital punishment is abolished, which is unlikely, or the state were to figure out some way to persuade courts to rubber-stamp death penalty appeals. That’s even less likely, and no one should want that. If the state were to create a sort of legal conveyor belt and execute one inmate a week, it would take 13 years to empty death row, though others would arrive at a rate of 20 or 30 a year. These prosecutor- politicians understand that even the most law-and-order politician would blanch at the prospect; they’d become known as bloodthirsty. Cooley and Harris also know that capital punishment comes at a high price. Later this month, the state will open bids to start construction of a new death row to house 768 inmates at a cost that could hit $500 million.