Saturday, May 9, 2009

Murder in California

Lazily browsing the web in search of California homicide statistics I came across a 1973 article, no by-line, in Time Magazine, with this intriguing title, Murder in California. The article covers a horrifying murder in a small town near Sacramento in which nine victims were killed, including an entire family, all found in the family's home. The men arrested were wanted to a similar crime spree in Arizona were described as a drifter and repeat offender who had done a brief stint in a mental hospital.

The year, 1973, was when the nation's practice of capital punishment hung in the balance. The Supreme Court had declared existing US death penalty laws unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (1972). Lawyers seeking abolition had argued that capital punishment was increasingly out of line with contemporary American values. Indeed executions and even death sentences had trickled to a halt by the late 1960s. But an ominous surge of homicides was beginning to turn the tide in favor of capital punishment in America and California was ground zero for that shift. Already in 1966, with homicides just beginning to move up, Ronald Reagan defeated two term governor Pat Brown, at least in part on Brown's opposition to capital punishment.

By the early 1970s the homicide rate in California was surging well ahead of the national rate. As the Time writer noted:

The killings were only the latest in a grisly series of six mass murders that have taken the lives of 64 people in California during the past four years. The day after Gretzler and Steelman were arrested, Edmund Emil Kemper III, who stands 6 ft. 9 in. and weighs 280 Ibs., was sentenced to life imprisonment for his most recent murders. When he was 15, Kemper killed his grandparents but later was released from a California state mental hospital, whereupon he began murdering a series of student hitchhikers. He ended by killing his mother Kemper decapitated seven of his eight victims, including his mother.

Last week California was also the scene of a bizarre single murder. Oakland's highly regarded school superintendent, Marcus A. Foster, 50, was ambushed in a parking lot and killed by a hail of fire that included bullets loaded with cyanide. Cut down with him was Robert Blackburn, his deputy, who was expected to live.

Responsibility for executing Foster's "death warrant" was claimed by the "Symbionese Liberation Army," a group unknown to the FBI or experts on local radical groups. In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, the organization objected to "fascist" policies supported by Foster, the first black to have headed the public schools in a major California city, that schools were giving police information about Oakland students—a claim that authorities denied.

That year the California homicide rate reached 9 per 100,000 inhabitants, double where it stood in 1966.

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