Death penalty: Ron Briggs’ odyssey

The execution chamber at San Quentin Prison

Ron Briggs was always an ardent supporter of the death penalty. His father John Briggs, former state assemblyman and senator, was a driving force behind a 1978 initiative that expanded the list of special circumstances required for a death sentence.

But today, Ron Briggs is one the biggest opponents of capital punishment. He campaigned for Proposition 62, which would have ended the state’s death penalty and was rejected by voters this month. The former El Dorado County supervisor is one of the petitioners in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 66, approved by voters instead, which would speed up the state’s executions.

He eventually learned that the death penalty costs taxpayers 18 times more than a sentence of life in prison. He said that death row inmates are kept in private cells and don’t have to work.

He now believes that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. He believes few murderers consider the potential punishment before they commit their horrible crimes.  “It’s more a social, mental health issue more than anything else,” he said.

John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general and a co-petitioner in the lawsuit to overturn Proposition 66, said Briggs’ involvement in the issue makes a strong statement.

“There’s a sense of irony in the fact that (Briggs and his dad) were so involved in the issue in the outset and they’ve seen it fail,” he said. “It shows minds can change over time.”

The reason for that dramatic shift had to do with religion, economics and victims’ experiences with the court procedure, Briggs said.

Briggs, who is now a political consultant, said his Catholic faith was a major factor in the turnaround. After years of staying away from the pews, he returned to attending services around 2006-07 and was influenced by the church’s teachings against capital punishment.


Photo: Josh Ren, The Foothill Dragon Press

He said that in the 1970s, the church didn’t provide much guidance about the death penalty. It wasn’t until 1980 that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published a negative statement about it. Now Pope Francis is very vocal about his desire to end capital punishment worldwide.

The economic impact of the death penalty was highlighted to him when he was serving on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors during the financial crisis of 2007-08. He recalls sitting through meetings when the board had to discuss laying off employees, cutting library hours and trimming back veterans’ services. At the same time, huge amounts of the budget were going to the district attorney’s office. It was then that he decided to get more educated about where all the expenses went.

“I became a hard-core abolitionist in 2008,” he said.

He eventually learned that the death penalty costs taxpayers 18 times more than a sentence of life in prison. He said that death row inmates are kept in private cells and don’t have to work. They are guaranteed rights to appeal that other prisoners don’t get.

According to, there are 741 prisoners on California’s death row. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, only 13 people have been executed in the state.

The final factor that pushed him into opposing the death penalty was the plight of victims with the endless court appeals. Each time the defendants go to trial again, the victims of the crime and their families have to relive the anguish and torture of what happened. He realized that the death penalty doesn’t in fact give closure to victims.

Briggs and Van de Kamp can refile once that happens, which will be by Dec. 16.

Briggs understands that some victims and their families do want the death penalty, but he doesn’t think it serves justice. “To me, justice and vengeance are two different things,” he said. “I think society’s justice is to get these people out of our hair and let them rot in prison.”

But some of Briggs’ family members disagree with his stance. His father remains publicly supportive of the death penalty though he understands the arguments and his mother is angry with him for opposing it.

Briggs and Van de Kamp filed their lawsuit against Proposition 66 in the state supreme court the day after the election and expect to eventually prevail. The suit said Proposition 66 violates defendants’ rights by imposing an unjust two-year time limit on the amount of time a judge has to hear the appeal. The suit also says the initiative violates state law because it doesn’t address a single subject and includes several topics.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “In layman’s terms, 66 aims to cut corners, tremendous corners.”

The court threw the lawsuit out because the election has not been certified yet but said Briggs and Van de Kamp can refile once that happens, which will be by Dec. 16.

Kent Scheidegger, one of the authors of Proposition 66 and legal director of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, called the lawsuit “a desperation shot.” He said decades of court precedent show that the initiative is sound. “It’s a big waste of the court’s time.”

He is unmoved by Briggs’ change of heart on the death penalty. “That is father sponsored an initiative on the death penalty doesn’t give him any special standing,” he said. “I suspect that he sees this as a way to get attention.”

Briggs said his involvement to abolish the death penalty has nothing to do with any future political goals, though he doesn’t rule them out.  He said he might run for a political office again.

“I’d like to take [Republican Congressman] Tom McClintock on but I don’t know if I have enough money to do that,” he said.

He said he was surprised that Californians didn’t vote to abolish the death penalty because the polls showed a sizable number wanted that. He thinks Proposition 66 confused voters. “People were ready to chuck the death penalty but Proposition 66 gave them a way out,” he said.




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