Fighting to Repeal Death Penalty Law He Wrote

Don Heller, author of Proposition 7, the 1978 law which expanded California's death penalty. (Photo: SAFE California)

Don Heller, author of Proposition 7, the 1978 law which expanded California's death penalty. (Photo: SAFE California)

For one of the items on this year’s ballot, you need to go back to 1978. In that year, California voters approved Proposition 7, which expanded the death penalty in California. This November Californians will vote on Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sacramento attorney Don Heller wrote Prop. 7 at the request of then-State Senator John Briggs.

“I wrote it with the intent of writing a perfect legal document. Which I did! It was well crafted. It met all the constitutional standards, and it’s never been overturned in any aspects by the U.S. Supreme Court.” Heller says.

“But I don’t believe capital punishment works. And if it doesn’t work, change it.”

Jerry Brown was governor at the time, and heinous crime sprees like the Manson killings and two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford were still fresh in voters’ minds. Heller remembers California as a western state with a taste for frontier justice. Proposition 7 got more than 71 percent of the vote.

“It was a culture of ‘hanging ’em high from the big oak tree,'” Heller recalls. “It was a western mentality of free thinkers and speedy punishment for criminal behavior.”

But executions in California have been anything but speedy. Since Prop. 7 passed, California has executed just 13 men and the death row population has grown from zero to more than 700. The average time between conviction and execution is nearly 18 years.

Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento says his group has pushed time and again to reduce that wait by streamlining legal appeals.

“If the legislature would do its job and pass the reforms correctly — and we’ve had bills in committee many, many times and they’ve always been killed in committee — we could get this done,” Scheidegger says.

Scheidegger strongly opposes Prop. 34, saying simply the inmates on death row deserve to die.

“These are crimes far worse than the typical murder,” he says. “These are cases of serial rape and torture, people torturing and murdering children, and life in prison without parole simply isn’t a sufficient punishment.”

But Don Heller kept an eye on the law as it was implemented. And he didn’t like what he saw.

“One of the things I noticed immediately, which surprised me, was that the quality of lawyers representing defendants in death penalty cases was suboptimal,” Heller says.

Heller calls himself a conservative Republican. But he now believes his ballot measure was “a colossal mistake” that needs to be changed. He’s supporting Proposition 34.

“I’m a believer in law and order. I think that’s the primary objective of government — is protecting society. But I don’t believe capital punishment works. And if it doesn’t work, change it,” Heller says.

Governor Jerry Brown won’t say — not yet anyway — whether he supports Prop. 34. But last year he cancelled plans for a new death row at San Quentin Prison. He said the state cannot afford it.


Fighting to End an Execution Law They Once Championed (New York Times)

  • Cat Burke

    Vote NO on
    Proposition 34 – If you can’t do it
    for yourself, do it for your children…

    My 14 year old
    daughter, Kessa, is waiting… To stand behind the glass, and watch as
    they execute William Gary Simpson. She can’t feel SAFE, until he is
    DEAD. She speaks of this, every single day! Because she has
    nightmares of what Simpson did, every single night. It is her way of
    dealing with the trauma of witnessing Simpson murder her sister! It is
    this hope to see him die, that keeps her going forward, for now…

    And for ME? I saw everything that demon, William Gary Simpson, did on December 20, 2011… I now know it is true – that MONSTERS

    And I am
    living proof, THAT NO ONE IS SAFE!

  • Cat Burke

    I raised Saskia to believe –
    Let that person be Saskia!
    Start, by voting

    NO on Proposition 34 !

    In this election year what
    becomes MOST important is fixing our broken Justice System to actually uphold
    the VERDICT. Life in Prison
    WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE should always and forever remain just that. And the
    Death Penalty should be conducted as swiftly as the


    For you see, I
    am left to live a life now, which is truly TOO INHUMANE to be forced to
    live. And I hope you can all open
    your eyes, to see what it is to be a VICTIM, and extend to VICTIMS such as us,
    the same understanding, compassion, and HUMANITY that is all too often offered
    more to the MURDERERS!

  • Cat Burke

    Let her voice now
    scream loudly for –


    And so, I now take a firm
    stance in this matter,

    FOR THE DEATH PENALTY! PLEASE Vote NO on Proposition 34!

    In this election year, the
    DEATH PENALTY will be on the ballot.
    Our CA Governor, Jerry Brown, opposes the Death Penalty. I need your help to make Saskia the
    face for all victims, and
    give Saskia’s story, to the people of California – AND THIS NATION, as to why the Death Penalty is so important
    to the Victims of Violent Crime. Join me in putting political views,
    religious beliefs, and personal feelings aside – to finally change our
    laws! Throughout the history of
    our country, change only came after someone had reason enough to stand before
    us and lead the way! I stand
    before you now – and Saskia is my reason!

    I know just how flawed our
    system is – as I am forced to live within it now! We now find ourselves lost in this “Justice
    System”, a system that is fraught too many ‘injustices’ for victims and
    their families. Isn’t it time, as
    a nation, we make the needed changes within this defunct system, to ensure the
    safety of everyone? If not for
    yourself, then for the safety of your children! Our current system is designed “FOR” the murderers,
    not the victims. Our murderer was
    caught, and faces the death penalty.
    A sentence he will never really receive, when it is given to him. Besides
    the fact that we witnessed him do this, there is overwhelming DNA evidence, and
    yet – it will be years before we can get to a trial, as he claims he is
    innocent of all charges… An
    agonizing process for all victims to endure, a process that keeps them frozen in
    the moment of murder until the trial is over! And when our murderer is sentenced? Our terror does not end, it never will!

  • Cat Burke

    So let Saskia’s
    words speak loudly for us all! Because this, the most precious gift in
    life, is what William Gary Simpson has taken, and can never be returned to us: ” I value my happiness. I value how happy and
    content I am with my life. I value the memories that have made my life as happy
    as it is. I value my friends and family who make me happy and share my
    happiness with me. I value all the things that make me happy, like fun and
    relationships, but what I value most is the fact that I am happy because there
    are so many people who are not that lucky. I value my happiness the most
    because the friends and items that you have may change, and circumstances may
    change, but the fact that


    AND WHO I AM –



    Having Saskia in
    our lives, and being a “complete” family was OUR MOST PRECIOUS GIFT,
    and truly made us happy! And inside this box Simpson has placed us in –
    of horror and terror, misery and pain, hopelessness and injustice, there simply
    “is” no happiness!

  • Cat Burke

    SASKIA’S PASSION – for her
    life, and her family and her friends!
    How Saskia has been so wronged!
    And knowing, her expectations of me, to never let her death be in
    vain! Knowing, that when I am
    finally free of this mess to go to her, she will know I did everything I could
    to take a stand, to affect change, to make a difference FOR HER in this world! She would expect nothing less from
    me. She would accept no other
    excuse from me for staying here, for forsaking her wishes for me to join her in
    death NOW!

    I will spend every
    moment I continue to live hearing Saskia’s screams! And feeling guilty,
    for not taking my leave of this life to be with her. I am forever torn between
    two plains of reality – life, and death! Because I KNOW THE ANSWER, to
    the question everyone asks… “What would Saskia want me to do now?” I had
    this conversation with her once. She said to me “momma, if I were to die,
    I would want you there with me! Don’t wait a single second! Hurry,
    because I would need you to be there with me! I couldn’t stand to be
    alone!” Every second spent living, is spent forsaking my Saskia! I do not
    simply wish for death, I physically ache for it with every breath!

  • Cat Burke

    And through it all, the sweet
    voice of my Saskia, that only I can hear now. Her
    words, of how SHE feels:

    “ I could never forgive
    someone for taking away my rights, my home, my friends and my life! If things like this happened to me I
    would be resentful, rather than forgiving. I just couldn’t forgive the people who were so prejudiced
    that they made me lose my best friends, and school. Just the thought of losing them brings tears to my eyes. I
    couldn’t forgive the people who took away my parents rights as citizens. I couldn’t forgive the people who
    restricted my loved ones from doing the things they love. I couldn’t forgive those who made me
    leave my home. I wouldn’t be
    able to forgive them for MAKING ME SO SCARED OF THEM, I FROZE WITH FEAR

    Saskia’s thoughts, written
    just weeks before her murder, for an essay on Anne Frank. “Thinking that Anne forgave them for
    all that, is unbelievably saintly.
    Even though Anne was just a regular girl like me, she was more
    remarkable than anyone I have ever heard of! I wouldn’t be as forgiving and naïve. I would be resentful, for being so
    wronged!” I ran across this open
    page, sitting in her room amongst her unfinished homework. HER THOUGHTS, about an unspeakable
    horror and injustice. HER WORDS,
    that speak directly to William Gary Simpson, Saskia’s “NAZI”!

  • Cat Burke

    Revenge and Justice are all
    we ever hear, from everyone! It is
    all that is discussed with regard to the Victim, when looking at the Death
    Penalty. But I have a different
    perspective, from within this inadequate justice system we currently bear…

    For there is truly no
    Revenge great enough,

    No Justice powerful


    I have only my unique
    perspective as a MOTHER. I look
    down the road, at the possible future all my children may one day have… To a day when they have families, and children
    of their own… If he does not
    receive the DEATH PENALTY? I do
    not want them to be forced to revisit Saskia’s murder, forced ever again to see
    the face of William Gary Simpson, the monster who murdered her! Or worse, that somehow Gary is granted
    PAROLE, this wolf – in – sheep’s – clothing? That
    again in their future, my children would live in mortal fear for their
    lives? That William Gary Simpson,
    if given his freedom, would exact his revenge upon my children and my

    Relying on a dysfunctional
    system, forcibly held by it, and yet I can find no place for myself here! With limited options, which are beyond
    my control. And yet the FINAL decision? Will determine the future of
    everyone I love. This alone, is a place
    that can make you loose your mind!
    A place of never ending terror!

  • Cat Burke

    December 20, 2011

    William Gary Simpson
    came into our home that morning, with the intention of killing my husband and
    three children, myself, and the 7 other children who were to be staying with us
    over Christmas break. Why? Because – he could not stand for us to
    have so much love in our home! He could not tolerate my children, and all
    the other children, being loved so unconditionally, the way he wanted his
    parents to love him. HE COVETED WHAT WE HAD…

    When the DA asked me
    “why” he did not kill his own family, but targeted ours – I answered with my
    insightful truth. In the heart of every child, they have ‘hope’ that one
    day their parents ‘will’ love them unconditionally. Their parents will
    finally ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them. If Simpson had killed his own parents, he
    would never get those things that he wants so much! So he chose, instead,
    to take it from all of us…

  • Cat Burke

    We raised our children
    in a warm, loving, family oriented home. I stayed home to raise my
    children. I spent every day of Saskia’s entire life with her! We
    have always had many children choose to spend time at our house, with our
    family. They liked to enjoy the structure of a family unit, a place where
    “mom” was always present, always involved. A home where homework was finished
    after school each day. A home where dinner was cooked, and the family ate
    together, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT! Where family games were played together at
    the table, and stories were read before bed… These children thrived on being listened to and included in
    an unbiased and unprejudiced environment. And they have always felt loved
    and accepted, here in our home. In a world where it is hard to find all
    of these things, our home was ‘sanctuary’ for children. My strong belief
    that it takes a community to raise the kids, held each child to my own high
    moral standards. This too, helped each child to become a better person,
    which in turn made the environment for my children better too! Because
    you see – I once believed it was possible, to make the world a better place,
    one child at a time. And when I look back, at all the children I’ve made
    a difference to? I can think of nothing better a person could ever hope
    to do with her life! I have succeeded in making a positive difference in
    this world! And the personal reward I receive – is the overwhelming love
    and respect from everyone in my life!

  • Cat Burke

    realized too much in that moment… I realized my Saskia was dead!
    I realized this boy and my husband were both going to die, as both were
    bleeding out… I realized, I was going to die. My
    13-year-old daughter stood on the steps, hearing and watching all of this!

    HE WAS!!!

  • Cat Burke

    a mass murderer, William Gary Simpson entered our home the early hours of Dec.
    20… He went into our son Ian’s
    room first – the only bedroom downstairs. He thought, from the rumpled
    covers, Ian was in bed sleeping. He stabbed into them, only to discover
    Ian was not there. So, he placed the knife on the bed, and threw the
    covers back over it.

    was when Saskia went downstairs at 4am for a bottle of water! “AAHHHH!” Our
    entire house awoke to her screams! “AAAAHHHHH!” As I ran from my bedroom and encountered my
    13-year-old daughter on the upstairs landing, I ordered her to stay there –
    ‘DON’T GO DOWNSTAIRS!’ “Daddyeee! AAAAAHHHHHH!!!” I ran downstairs, as Saskia continued to scream in
    pain and terror, “Daddyeeeeee!” “AAAAAAHHHHHHHHhhhh!”, to discover Saskia already dead on the floor. And Simpson,
    standing over her with that 15-inch knife, dripping with her blood. My
    husband and another child tackled Simpson. I took away the murder weapon.
    I was going to grab
    the phone, and call for help, but the phone was missing. I ran out front,
    and screamed for help! All I could think of was getting help for my
    daughter! I threw down the murder weapon, and saw a man across the street
    getting into his truck. I screamed for him to call the police, we need an
    SHE MAY BE DEAD – I NEED HELP! And I ran back inside –

    I did not know,
    Simpson had brought more weapons. I came back in to discover he had
    stabbed my husband (many times in the back, puncturing his lung), and to my
    horror, was standing over this child who was begging for his life, (Gary, you
    don’t have to do this! Please Gary!)
    and brought the knife down, severing the artery in his neck! I ran to
    stop him, but could not reach him in time… As he brought the blade down
    again severing the artery, and the blood shot out of his boy’s neck, and
    covered everything! I grabbed the blade as he brought it up the third time, and
    my husband tackled Simpson.

  • Cat Burke

    I would have never
    thought, I would find myself to be the mother of a murdered child, the victim
    of a heinous, violent crime. We
    were Once the Burke’s – good, moral parents, who raised our children in a very
    loving home. Our murderer, coveted that love we had… Our murderer, was a friend of our son’s – a friend to our
    family, for over 10 years… Ten years of birthday parties, Christmas
    vacations, summer sleepovers and pool parties. Ten years of classes with
    our son, fieldtrips, lunches and recess… Ten years, of paintball games
    and 4th of July fireworks, of hanging out and playing Rock Band in our living
    room… Our murderer was raised by his mother in a privileged home,
    attended the same good schools as our children, and he received good
    grades. I could have never thought he would plan and practice for almost
    1 year, to come into our home with a duffle bag full of knives 4 days before
    Christmas (after hiding in an empty nearby home waiting for all our children to
    come home), to murder us all! He
    slashed and stabbed my daughter to death, when she went downstairs for a bottle
    of water at 4am…

  • Cat Burke

    William Gary Simpson took our
    CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness when he
    CHOSE to commit mass murder. He
    took these rights from us, FOREVER when he murdered Saskia!

  • Cat Burke

    In a Mass Murderous
    attack upon the Burke family while they lay sleeping, my 18-year-old daughter,
    Saskia Savana Burke, was brutally stabbed to death here in our home December
    20, 2011… Her murderer, William Gary Simpson, has been arrested and
    charged with Saskia’s murder, 2 counts attempted murder, several counts of
    special circumstances including lying in wait.

    is eligible for the death penalty.

  • Cat Burke

    Protection is the
    only reason why we must vote NO on Proposition 34!

  • Cat Burke

    the decision that capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme
    cases is an expression of the community’s belief that certain crimes are
    themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response
    may be the penalty of death.”

  • Cat Burke

    I am Catherine Burke –

    Mother of a Murdered Child
    – AND – Victim of Violent Crime!

    I offer to each and every
    citizen, the true reason we should have the Death Penalty – PROTECTION!

    • Lisa Aliferis, KQED

      Catherine–We’d like to talk with you about your views on the death penalty. Can you contact me at : laliferis-at-KQED-dot-org

      • Cat Burke

        Still want to talk about the Death Penalty? We are possibly, finally, getting out trial this year – 3 YEARS after MURDER. You can call me, Nine Five One Six Nine 8 9 Four 0 Four… Our MURDERER has the opportunity to be given the Death Penalty, a “SENTENCE” which WE – HIS VICTIMS – unanimously DEMAND. If and when this monstrous MURDERER receives the DEATH SENTENCE, I will become the nation’s number 1 leading activist TO ENFORCE OUR VERDICT!

        His “LIFE” is not an option to us. For his desires to MURDER, “prison” is not an option we find acceptable. BECAUSE HE WILL KILL AGAIN, GIVEN ANY CHANCE!

        Catherine Burke,
        Murrieta, CA

  • Thomas Daniel

    with people llike the night stalker who killed all those people years ago i am sure how he would vote maybe just stop executions and parole him like the manson follower soon will be so he can get back to killing again great idea or the guy who tapes women while he tortures them another pillar of the community