Wife of slain Merced police officer questions death penalty ban. ‘I felt justice was in place’

Michelle Gray felt she had to have a talk with her children on Tuesday night. She wanted to give them a heads up that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was putting a stop to the death penalty in California.

Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday morning granting reprieves to all 737 Californians awaiting executions.

One of those inmates on death row is Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera, a gang member who gunned down Merced police Officer Stephan Gray during a traffic stop on April 15, 2004. Rivera has been sitting on death row at San Quentin State Prison for more than a decade.

Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera, convicted of killing Merced Police Department Officer Stephan Gray. Merced Sun-Star

“Unfortunately there was probably close to 740 families that had that same discussion (Tuesday) night,” Michelle Gray said in an interview with the Sun-Star. “I felt I had to tell my kids of the situation.”

Gray didn’t want her 17-year old daughter, Cameron, to be caught off guard if the topic was discussed in her government class at school.

“As long as (Rivera) stays in prison - and I’m confident he will - that’s what we can focus on,” Michelle Gray said. “We can push on and be successful as a family.”

Newsom’s action comes three years after California voters rejected an initiative to end the death penalty and, instead, passed a measure to speed up executions.

Newsom says the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color. He says it has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Newsom called the death penalty “ineffective, irreversible and immoral.”

“You, as taxpayers – you have spent $5 billion since we reinstated the death penalty in this state,” he said. “What have we gotten for that?”

Newsom feels killing other people is wrong.

“If you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “I think if someone kills, we don’t kill.”

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol. But executions for more than 20 inmates who have exhausted their appeals could have resumed if those challenges were cleared up, and Newsom has said he worried that could happen soon.

“You would think the death penalty is already suspended. It’s kind of a broken system because we don’t enforce it now,” said Merced Police Chief Chris Goodwin.

Goodwin says the victim’s feelings and emotions aren’t taken into account when suspects are punished.

“In most cases, the victims didn’t do anything wrong,” Goodwin said. “If a burglary suspect waits for you to go to work and then breaks into your house and steals your stuff, a lot of time the state no longer sends the suspect to prison. He’ll get community service. It’s a disservice to the victims.”

Newsom has long opposed the death penalty. While campaigning for a measure to repeal the death penalty in 2016, he told the Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters,” if he became governor.

“I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us” on the death penalty, he said.

AK Stephan Gray Memorial 11.JPG
Michelle Gray speaks about her late husband Stephan Gray, during a memorial for the fallen Merced Police officer, at the Merced Police Department, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. Gray, 34, was shot and killed in the line of duty April 15, 2004, chasing a gang member. Andrew Kuhn

Michelle Gray says she never thought the execution of Rivera would happen during her lifetime. When Proposition 66 passed in 2016, she says the people of California made it clear they were in favor of the death penalty.

“I’d love to have the opportunity to sit down with the governor and learn about his views and how he feels about this,” she said. “I’d like to explain to him how the verdict brought us a lot of peace and allowed us to move on as a family. I’d like to ask him if he’s ever been impacted by the loss of someone he loves deeply, who was killed at the hands of another person.

“He didn’t think it was right for an individual to take anyone’s life. Well, Rivera took my husband’s life. When the jury came back with their verdict, I felt justice was in place.”

The moratorium will be in place for the duration of Newsom’s time in office, the governor’s office said.

California is one of 31 states with capital punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In recent years, other states have abolished the death penalty and several other governors have placed moratoriums on executions.

“This affects (Gray’s) whole family, it affects the police department,” Goodwin said. “That case goes from sentencing him to death to suspended, what is the impact here on the community? What’s the impact on the jury? We’re saving one person’s life who ultimately took another person’s life. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“My personal opinion is I think not only should we have the death penalty but they should enforce it.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.