For the 3rd time in 40 years, Californians will vote in November on the death
penalty, an institution that has had at least as much impact on the state's
politics as on its institutions of crime and punishment. Opponents of capital
punishment said Thursday they were submitting 800,000 signatures on petitions
for an initiative to close the nation's largest death row, which has 725
condemned prisoners. The measure needs 504,760 valid signatures to make the
"California voters are ready to replace the death penalty with life in prison
with no chance of parole," declared Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw four
executions as warden of San Quentin State Prison. She now heads the
anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus.
It was an unusually optimistic statement in a state whose residents have
consistently supported the death penalty. The most recent Field Poll, in
September, showed 68 % support — although respondents in the same survey, when
asked their preferred sentence for murder, backed life without parole over
death by 48 to 40 %.
The last time the issue was on the ballot, Californians voted by a 71 %
majority in 1978 to expand a death penalty law that legislators had passed the
year before over Gov. Jerry Brown's veto. When the state Supreme Court ruled
the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, voters overrode the decision by a
67.5 % majority.
The court itself was shaken in 1986 when voters unseated Chief Justice Rose
Bird and 2 colleagues who had regularly voted to overturn death sentences.
Since then, the California court has had one of the nation's highest rates of
upholding death judgments.
Nationally, support for capital punishment has declined somewhat, possibly in
response to falling crime rates and DNA exonerations of death row inmates.
Several states have repealed the death penalty -- New York by court ruling in
2004, New Jersey and Illinois by legislation in 2007 and 2011. But it has never
been done by ballot initiative.
In California, "when the death penalty comes up as a political issue, it comes
up as a question of basic sentiment: Which do you prefer, murder victims or the
people that killed them?" Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who has
written extensively about capital punishment, said in an interview.
Sponsors of the initiative hope to reframe the issue as a question of wasteful
spending at a time of financial crisis.
A 2008 study by a state commission headed by former Attorney General John Van
de Kamp concluded that the death penalty was costing California $137 million a
year for trials and appeals. Substituting life without parole would reduce the
cost to $11.5 million, it said.
A study last year by Arthur Alarcon, a federal appeals court judge, and law
Professor Paula Mitchell of Loyola Los Angeles law school put the death penalty
cost even higher, at $184 million.
Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1977, the report said, it has
spent more than $4 billion, which works out to $308 million for each of the 13
executions carried out since 1992.
Death penalty supporters challenge those figures. Kent Scheidegger, legal
director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the cost estimates are
based on needlessly protracted appeals. He said future cases should take less
time and money because of recent restrictions on federal court review of death
sentences, and pointed out that life terms carry their own costs for housing
and medical care.
The initiative would set aside $100 million of the projected savings over three
years to investigate unsolved rapes and murders. It would also require
convicted murderers to work in prison and send their wages to the state's
restitution fund for crime victims.
The death penalty consumes "millions of dollars that can be put toward keeping
our teachers, police and firefighters in their jobs," said Gil Garcetti, a
former Los Angeles County district attorney who supports the ballot measure.
Sponsors of the initiative highlighted support from onetime death penalty
backers like Donald Heller, the Sacramento lawyer who wrote the 1978 death
penalty initiative. "I made a terrible mistake 34 years ago," he said Thursday.
The state's two most prominent death penalty opponents, however, are staying on
Brown -- who declared in his 1977 veto message that he preferred "a society
where we do not attempt to use death as a punishment" -- is taking no position
on the initiative, said spokesman Gil Duran. The office of Attorney General
Kamala Harris, who as San Francisco district attorney had a policy against
seeking the death penalty, had no comment.
Regardless of the November vote, executions in California have been halted by
court order since February 2006 and are unlikely to resume for at least another
After blocking a scheduled lethal injection at San Quentin, U.S. District Judge
Jeremy Fogel of San Jose held hearings and ruled that poor staff training and
monitoring and haphazard procedures posed an undue risk of a breakdown that
would subject an inmate to a prolonged and agonizing death, in violation of the
constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The state has revised its rules and built a new death chamber but says it will
not be prepared for court review until the end of this year.
(source: The (Monterey County) Herald)