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How Murder Victims' Families Are Responding To Death Penalty Halt In California

California Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign an order on Wednesday putting an executive moratorium on the state's death penalty. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign an order on Wednesday putting an executive moratorium on the state's death penalty. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is no stranger to bold pronouncements. Fifteen years ago, as mayor of San Francisco, he directed city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, violating state law at the time.

He gained national attention, and a little less than a week ago, he did it again, ordering a moratorium on the death penalty in California: withdrawing the state’s lethal injection protocol, closing the gas chamber at San Quentin and sparing the lives — for now — of 737 inmates, almost 30 percent of the nation’s total death row population

But for supporters of the death penalty, like Los Angeles County prosecutor Michele Hanisee, Newsom’s decision was an insult, and an injustice.

Tuesday, On Point, we spoke to multiple family members of murder victims who have differing opinions about the consequences the killers should face. The conversation offered a snapshot of how those in the United States see capital punishment in the larger framework of justice.

Phyllis Loya, opposes Gov. Newsom's decision. Her son — Pittsburg, California, police officer Larry Lasater — was killed in the line of duty in 2005. His killer is on California’s death row.

Sharon, our caller from Vermillion, South Dakota, experienced the death of her brother at the hands of two men in the 1980s. Her family asked that prosecutors not pursue the death penalty.

Interview Highlights

On Gov. Newsom

Loya: "My reaction to the moratorium is that he betrayed us. When he was campaigning for governor, he was interviewed by several editorial boards and he made statements during his campaign that he was going to carry out the will of the people. It is very clear from our last election on this issue that the will of the people in California was not only to keep the death penalty but to enforce it, to fix our system which was broken and stop the delay for families of decades like mine."

On why a life sentence is not satisfactory punishment

Loya: "I'm 71 years old. I've dealt very seriously. I will live to see the execution of my son's murderer. But I don't want my grandchild growing up and spending 35 or 40 years before he sees his father's killers execution carried out. There are families that have waited decades over 30, 35 years and now we're supposed to wait until [Newsom] finishes his election time because he has decided to put his own personal will ahead. He blindsided us. He stole justice from us like a thief in the night."

"My reaction to the moratorium is that he betrayed us. ... It is very clear from our last election on this issue that the will of the people in California was not only to keep the death penalty but to enforce it."

Phyllis Loya

On why execution would provide closure

Loya: "People use closure, and I think it means different things to different people. What it would mean for me is that my fight for justice for my son would be complete when his sentence, which was by a Contra Costa County jury and by a Contra Costa County judge, would be carried out as it should be, which really basically means we have a law on the books, enforce it — give people their appellate rights — but enforce the law."

On the life of her son, officer Larry Lasater

Loya: "My son graduated from UC Davis in 1994. He then went into the Marine Corps where he served his country as a Marine Corps officer. He attained the rank of a captain. He was a very good officer who had the respect of the people under his command. By the time my son was 30 years old he was commanding over 150 Marines. When my son left the Marines — he left the Marines active service, he stayed a reservist. He left active because he wanted to start a family. He came back to the community that he grew up in and began to serve that community as a police officer. Three years later, my son, responding to a bank robbery, was ambushed. He was shot twice. Even in death, my son continued to serve because my son led a life of service and he continued to serve by being an organ donor, saving five lives. At the time of my son's murder, he was expecting his first child. My grandson was born two and a half months after my son was killed. And the closest my son got to holding his son was holding a sonogram in his cold, lifeless hands in a casket."

"But, to me, more than justice is healing. And you do not reach that point of forgiveness — if that man had been executed, he would never have come to that point of remorse, I don't think."

On Point caller Sharon

On opposing the death penalty

Sharon: "First, my heart goes out to those who are victims of — whose families have been touched by murder in these horrific acts. My brother was brutally murdered by two men back in the 1980s. They brutally beat him to death. There was a skull fracture wound where they could determine that a boot print had crushed his skull as one of the means of attack. There were 150 blows. He was a pulp.

"And our family decided to ask that they not pursue the death penalty because we had been against the death penalty and felt that even in this situation, we had to continue to be, we wanted to continue to take that stand. I am now — years later — extremely grateful that we did because at a point later 25 years down the road, there was a parole hearing for one of the murderers. My younger brother's daughter and I went to that hearing to — we didn't know really quite why but we wanted to be there to be there for Martin, to make a statement. And we sat in the parole room and they brought the murderer in, and he turned and looked at us with tears in his eyes and he said, 'There is not a day that goes by that I don't wish that I had died instead of your brother. I am so sorry for what I did. I know you can never forgive me, but I am so sorry for what I did.' We held his hands. We cried and we actually spoke on his behalf at the parole hearing for him to be finally released into society again."

On what justice for families looks like

Sharon: "I have no problem with life imprisonment. I think, actually, that's a more intense penalty than killing somebody, executing them. I think forcing someone to live in a penitentiary for the rest of their lives is a very intense punishment. So that would be a term of justice.

"But, to me, more than justice is healing. And you do not reach that point of forgiveness — if that man had been executed, he would never have come to that point of remorse, I don't think. And I don't think he would ever come to that point, certainly, of being able to look us in the eye and literally ask that we forgive him, knowing that we did not owe it to him in any way.

"The burden that lifted from my shoulders when I realized that I was able to give him that forgiveness, it was truly amazing. It was life-changing. And I figured if that's how it felt to me, I can't even imagine what it felt like to him. Now, the other murderer died before he ever came to me. He never asked forgiveness, and I find myself wrestling with the real realization that someone doesn't need to ask you to forgive them for you to forgive them. But, boy, it's a lot easier when they do."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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