- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

June 13

Los Angeles Times on Gov. Brown needing to grant clemency to death row inmate Kevin Cooper:

Stymied by legal challenges, the state of California has not executed any of its more than 700 condemned prisoners since 2006. But if the machinery of death ever does rev back up, Kevin Cooper will be on the short list of people to receive lethal injections. He shouldn’t be, and Gov. Jerry Brown needs to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

Cooper was convicted of horrific crimes. Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica, and 11-year-old houseguest Christopher Hughes were hacked and slashed to death in June 1983. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son Josh miraculously survived having his throat cut.

Even though Cooper has spent more than 30 years on death row for the murders, however, serious questions have lingered.

For instance, Josh Ryen initially told hospital workers that the family had been attacked by three or four white men. Cooper is black.

What’s more, a woman said that on the day of the murders, her former boyfriend had been wearing a tan T-shirt similar to one found near the crime scene. She also said he showed up at her house wearing blood-spattered coveralls. (The coveralls were discarded by a sheriff’s deputy, the blood untested.)

The forensic evidence linking Cooper to the killings was thin, and there are strong arguments that some of it was planted after his arrest. For instance, years after Cooper’s arrest, a blood test was performed on the tan T-shirt and, according to analysts, the test detected his DNA. At first, that seemed to be the incontrovertible scientific evidence that had for so long eluded investigators - but an appellate judge noted that the blood on the T-shirt contained signs of a chemical used by the sheriff’s office to preserve blood in a laboratory for later testing. According to the judge, that suggested the blood “had been planted on the T-shirt.”

That shirt remains at the center of the current battle over Cooper’s guilt. Trace DNA tests not available at the time of the crimes or Cooper’s trial or his earlier appeals could, experts argue, determine whether Cooper or someone else had worn the shirt. But since Cooper has exhausted his appeals, prosecutors have refused to conduct the test.

There are two outrages here. First, there is no rational reason not to do the tests. A man’s life hangs in the balance. If the state wants to execute someone, it must go to extreme lengths to make certain the inmate is actually guilty. It’s true that Cooper has exhausted all his legal appeals, but that’s no reason to refuse to take another step to determine whether the state has convicted the wrong man. It was just six weeks ago that Vicente Benavides Figueroa was freed after a quarter-century on death row when it was finally determined that the medical evidence against him was based on incomplete records. Seven months ago, Craig Coley was released from a life sentence when new DNA tests of evidence from his 1980 trial proved his innocence.

Second, there are serious accusations here about the planting of evidence and the destruction of other evidence, the failure of prosecutors to share exculpatory evidence with Cooper’s lawyer, lies by investigators and other acts of official misconduct. These demonstrate yet again why the capital punishment process is too imperfect and manipulable to be relied upon. Even if the DNA test doesn’t provide incontrovertible proof that Cooper is innocent, it is still the case that actions by police and prosecutors - such as throwing away the bloody coveralls - deprived Cooper of due process and a fair trial.

Cooper filed this clemency petition more than two years ago, yet Brown has not acted on it. No matter what the DNA test finds, Brown should commute Cooper’s sentence to life in prison without parole. (Because Cooper has prior felony burglary convictions, four state Supreme Court justices would have to approve, too.)

The Times opposes the death penalty under any circumstances in part because of cases such as this, in which a person who may very well be innocent could get executed. There is no known mechanism to ensure against that.

The governor, who also opposes the death penalty, knows the capital punishment system is inherently flawed. And the Cooper case bares those flaws in excruciating detail. The system has failed from beginning to end, and it would be both an error of judgment and a failure of morality to keep Cooper on death row any longer.

Brown has over his recent eight-year stint in the governor’s office made tough decisions on a range of issues. This one actually is easy. Brown should grant clemency and see that the DNA test is conducted.


June 13

The Press Democrat on assessing liability for October’s fires:

Cal Fire’s investigative reports are confirming suspicions that power lines owned by PG&E; started most of October’s wildfires.

Given the mix of warm, gusty winds and an abundance of dry fuel, that’s not a big surprise.

Look beyond the headline, and you see that Cal Fire’s conclusions are nuanced. Investigators separate the fires into two categories: those where they found evidence that state laws were violated, and those where there is no indication that any rules were broken.

Because of a legal standard known as inverse condemnation, that distinction may not matter in the civil lawsuits filed against PG&E; by property owners, insurers and local governments, including Sonoma County.

The issue of negligence should, however, inform legislative debates about liability for future wildfires.

So far, Cal Fire has issued findings on 16 wildfires that burned across Northern California in October, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than 40 people.

Investigators linked all 16 fires to PG&E; - power lines falling into vegetation or trees or limbs making contact with power lines. In 11 instances, investigators say they found evidence of legal violations, such as a failure to clear brush or properly maintain equipment. Those reports have been submitted to local district attorneys for possible prosecution.

Five other fires started despite proper brush clearance and equipment maintenance.

(Cal Fire has yet to report on the largest and most destructive fire, the Tubbs fire, which raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, leveling entire neighborhoods in its path.)

PG&E; could face billions of dollars in civil damages and fines from the state Public Utilities Commission on top of post-fire repair and service restoration costs exceeding $250 million.

Along with California’s other investor-owned utilities, PG&E; is lobbying in Sacramento for relief, potentially including permission to raise rates to cover civil damages.

If a utility is convicted of a criminal violation - and PG&E; has yet to be charged in connection with any of October’s fires - it would be difficult to justify passing costs onto ratepayers.

But what about wildfires where there isn’t a criminal violation, or any finding of negligence on the part of PG&E; or another utility?

It seems to us that there is room for discussion.

Under the present rules, utilities can be held liable for fires tied to their equipment, even if they were in compliance with safety regulations. And requests to pass some or all of those costs on to customers have been denied by the Public Utilities Commission.

One result is a race to the courthouse after major wildfires. PG&E; is the defendant in more than 100 lawsuits relating to October’s wildfires, and, to try to limit its exposure, the company has started to pursue its own legal claims, including one alleging that Sonoma County was unprepared to fight a major fire.

Litigation is an expensive and time-consuming approach, especially considering the large number of underinsured victims still trying to figure out how to rebuild.

A bill by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would offer relief from liability to utilities that complete an approved safety, reliability and resiliency plan and update it annually.

Protection still would be needed for people who suffer losses in utility-related wildfires that aren’t caused by negligence. One alternative under discussion, according to Bloomberg News, is a compensation fund backed by utilities and the state. It’s a promising concept, similar to the state’s earthquake insurance program.

But, as is too often the case, most of the conversations are taking place behind closed doors. It’s time to invite the public into the discussion.


June 9

The Mercury News on 13 contentious measures for November election:

The hottest statewide political battle in California this fall likely won’t be the governor’s race between Gavin Newsom and John Cox or any other contests for statewide office.

It will be the looming ballot fights over the state gas tax, rent control, property taxes, data privacy, caging of farm animals and whether to let paint manufacturers off the hook for the decades of health damages from lead in their products.

All told, at current count, there could be as many 13 measures on the ballot, most put on there through initiative signature-gathering drives. If that wasn’t enough, the Legislature could still add more.

The barrage of misleading mailers and advertisements on television, radio and social media that voters endured this spring will only get worse in the fall.

So, we implore you: Start preparing. Yes, it’s early. But there’s a lot of studying to do. Read and listen to new stories from trustworthy media organizations. The best defense against sleazy advertising is knowledge.

We’re not prepared to make recommendations. We, too, have studying to do. But we want to prepare you for what’s the come.

Topping the list is a Republican-led effort to repeal the gas tax increase that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year. Few California issues have been as politically potent for the GOP as attacking increases to the cost of driving.

The tripling of the vehicle license fee was a key factor in the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. And last year’s gas tax increase sparked Tuesday’s recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, who had supported the hike.

The repeal initiative on the November ballot will force Brown to defend a gas tax increase that he considers one of the major accomplishments of his tenure.

He and fellow Democrats argue that the tax, which would raise about $5 billion a year, is desperately needed to repair highways, bridges and local streets. Republicans hope to use the issue as a catalyst to turn out GOP voters in November, bolstering their party’s diminishing political power.

Of the 13 measures, one was placed on the ballot by Legislature, three initiatives have cleared the signature check at the Secretary of State’s Office and signatures for nine others, including the gas tax repeal, are undergoing review, which should be completed by June 28.

The gas tax repeal initiative is expected to qualify. The other 12 measures would:

. Give consumers the right to control what personal data businesses are gathering and ability to opt out without losing services.

. Reverse the 1995 Costa-Hawkins law that limits the use of rent control in California.

. Permit the state to borrow $4 billion to fund low-income housing developments and home loans for California veterans.

. Permit the state to borrow $9 billion for drinking water and watershed improvements, habitat restoration and dam repairs.

. Authorize $1.5 billion in bonds for children’s hospital construction.

. Change Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property-tax cutting initiative, to give homeowners wanting to move a major tax break.

. Cap kidney dialysis companies’ revenues.

. Divide California into three states.

. Set new standards for the confinement of farm animals.

. Require private-sector emergency ambulance employees to remain on-call during work breaks.

. Expand the types of taxes and fees that would require two-thirds approval of the Legislature or local voters.

. Limit the liability of lead-paint manufacturers.

The good news is that 19 additional ballot measures were either withdrawn or failed to qualify.

California’s penchant for ballot box democracy only works if voters arm themselves with knowledge to make informed decisions.

Voters, start doing your homework.


June 9

Ventura County Star on California’s immigration sanctuary law debate:

Local government can get pretty ugly at times. Public hearings on controversial issues can run for hours, with repetitive comments, circular debate, undue emotion, shouting and name-calling. The matter may even be out of the government’s jurisdiction, leaving a city council or school board or commission with little choice but to take no action, or symbolic action at best.

Such is the case now as opponents of California’s immigration sanctuary law make the rounds of cities in Ventura County and elsewhere, urging city councils to go on record opposing Senate Bill 54.

Cities have no say in the matter - it’s a state and federal dispute that will be settled in the courts or ballot box or both. The hearings can be divisive, politically calculated and, from city officials’ point of view, a waste of valuable time and energy.

Yet they really have no choice. As fruitless as the debate may be, it is an example of how democracy should work. Citizens concerned about local matters such as public safety have the right to go to local government and be heard.

And so we applaud the cities of Camarillo and Thousand Oaks for holding recent public hearings on SB 54, even though both decided to take no action. And we are glad that Simi Valley, after deciding behind closed doors to side with the Trump administration on the issue, has reversed course on that lack of transparency and decided to hold an open hearing June 25.

We have remained neutral in the sanctuary debate and frankly are turned off by the politics on both sides.

We think Camarillo Mayor Charlotte Craven summed it up well before voting on the issue May 23 when she said, “I believe that this is a dogfight that we don’t have a dog in, and I believe that it would be best to see what the courts say.” Still, her council endured five hours of public comments, 95 speakers, and audience shouts of “cowards” that night.

Likewise, the Thousand Oaks City Council last week heard five hours of testimony, 100 speakers and yells of “America first!” even though Mayor Andy Fox said the city has no legal standing in the issue and SB 54 is not affecting the city’s public safety.

It’s no wonder the Simi Valley City Council decided to discuss the issue in private April 23, even if it meant flirting with a violation of the state’s open meetings law. Democracy isn’t that easy, however, and to its credit the city has decided to revisit that decision in public even while maintaining it did not violate the Brown Act.

We can’t argue with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s thoughts on what he calls the anti-sanctuary “resolutionary movement.” He wrote last month, “What bugs me . is that there’s no need for it other than to fan the flames. . Fix the streets, upgrade the sewage treatment plant, do something about real crime rather than rant about imaginary threats.”

“It’s purely symbolic,” Charis Kubrin, a UC Irvine professor of criminology, law and society, told Lopez. “I think it’s been a very effective move in some ways because the story has become how divided California is, when in fact it’s not.”

SB 54 supporters, however, play into the divisiveness when they argue that out-of-towners have no right to petition Thousand Oaks or other cities for a hearing. They are Californians, too, and have the right to seek support for their cause throughout the state.

Unfortunately, local governments are stuck in the middle of all this. We can only suggest that they do a lot of listening, nod their heads and hope for a quick judicial resolution.


June 8

The San Diego Union-Tribune on not making California’s education debate just about charter schools:

The emergence of a group of wealthy charter school supporters as a potent force has been one of the more striking recent developments in Golden State politics. While their huge donations failed to elevate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the runoff in the governor’s race, their clout has already reshaped the board of Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district.

But their apparent belief that more charter schools will solve all of public education’s woes misses the fuller schools debate Californians need - both in the governor’s race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, and in the state superintendent of public instruction race pitting Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Bay Area union Democrat, and former school leader Marshall Tuck, a Los Angeles reform Democrat supported by some of the same charter school backers funding Villaraigosa.

That’s why Newsom’s remarks on election night were so welcome. He depicted a successful public education as crucial not just for California’s economy but for the state in general. This built on themes Newsom has long outlined - starting with the need for education to be “a lifelong pursuit” that empowers Californians to launch new careers after their old occupations are wiped out by new technologies. If Newsom becomes governor as pundits predict and uses his political capital toward these goals - starting with changes in badly dated high school graduation requirements - that would be exciting. As for Cox, he supports vouchers but says the first step toward “quality” education is “more charters, of course.” Sharper differences will surely emerge.

While the stakes are lower, the race for state superintendent of schools is also of vital importance. Tuck’s reform credentials are impeccable. But Thurmond has been so close to the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers his entire time in the Legislature that if he’s elected, he could emerge as an obstacle to Newsom’s efforts to bring change to public schools. That’s because the superintendent has the compliance oversight authority to enforce - or to sandbag - many state and federal mandates meant to force schools and school districts to better handle their responsibilities. This power was on display in 2015 when current Superintendent Tom Torlakson overruled a state Department of Education official and said funds given to districts with high numbers of English-language learners, foster students and impoverished families to help those categories of students could instead be used for broader purposes - including teacher raises.

As Torlakson did when he first ran for superintendent in 2010, Thurmond touts a reform agenda. But his refusal to support changes in tenure rules that allow teachers to gain lifetime job protections after 16 months of employment is awfully telling. He needs to be repeatedly pressed over the next five months to explain how he squares this position with his claim to care about students first and foremost.

Yes, the state’s 1,200-plus charter schools are important. But they teach only about 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 students. There’s much more to this education debate. It’s time to have it.

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