California's voters in November will have their 1st opportunity in more than
three decades to consider whether to scrap the death penalty and clear the
largest death row in the nation's history.
Reviving one of the state's most contentious political issues, backers of a
proposed ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty announced Thursday that
they had more than enough signatures to put the explosive question on the
November ballot. They gathered more than 800,000 signatures, 300,000 more than
required, and only technical glitches would prevent a campaign that will reopen
the debate over whether California should execute its most heinous murderers.
The SAFE California Act would replace the death penalty with life in prison
without the possibility of parole. If approved, the law would convert the death
sentences of the state's 725 death row inmates to life in prison terms and
eliminate the death penalty option in murder cases.
Californians historically have strongly supported the death penalty, famously
ousting former Chief Justice Rose Bird and 2 Supreme Court colleagues in 1986
for refusing to uphold death sentences.
But at the same time, the state's death penalty system has been marred by epic
delays of 20 years or more in legal appeals. Just 13 inmates have been executed
since the restoration of capital punishment in 1978, prompting even some
leading death penalty supporters to question its benefits.
California has not executed an inmate in 6 years, the result of ongoing legal
challenges to the state's lethal injection method that are expected to extend a
moratorium on the use of the death chamber for at least another year.
Death penalty opponents are pushing the measure as a way to save the state as
much as $180 million annually, arguing that capital punishment has become an
expensive waste of money at a time when California is slashing spending on
everything from schools to public safety. A study last year, headed by a
federal appeals court judge, concluded the state would save that much money
because it costs so much more to house death row prisoners, conduct death
penalty trials and for the lengthy appeals that follow convictions.
Jeanne Woodford, former chief of the state prison system and San Quentin
warden, is leading the campaign, calling the death penalty no more than a
"(This) will put an end to its intolerable risk and exorbitant cost," she said
at a San Francisco news conference, joined by former Santa Clara County
Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who is also heading the campaign.
California will jump into the death penalty debate at a time when capital
punishment is in flux across the country. States such as Illinois, New Jersey
and New Mexico have scrapped the death penalty in recent years, and many others
have put executions on hold as a result of legal uncertainty over lethal
injection or calls to study the issue. 16 states no longer carry out the death
The most recent Field Poll on the topic last year found 68 % of California
voters support the death penalty. But the same poll also found more of the
state's voters prefer murderers serve life in prison without the possibility of
parole than get executed, a shift in attitude that SAFE leaders are hoping to
In addition to Woodford, who oversaw four executions as San Quentin's warden,
other key figures are raising questions about the death penalty, including
former prosecutor Don Heller, who helped craft the 34-year-old law, and former
Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who put dozens of killers on death
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, while not taking a position on the measure,
recently told the Mercury News editorial board that she believes a
re-evaluation of the law and its effectiveness is warranted.
The campaign raised $1.3 million for the signature gathering in 2011, getting
checks cut by donors such as Hyatt Hotels magnate Nicholas Pritzker and Netflix
CEO Reed Hastings, according to state finance records.
But death penalty supporters are lining up to combat the measure. They say the
cost-savings projections are inaccurate and would vanish if the state resumes
executions and begins to clear its death row. This is particularly true in the
long run, they say, because the numbers of death sentences have slowed in
recent years across the state, with juries sending just nine condemned inmates
to San Quentin in 2011.
This newspaper reported last year that at least a dozen inmates have exhausted
their legal appeals and would be in line for execution dates if the moratorium
is lifted, an unprecedented number.
Law enforcement groups such as the district attorney association and police
groups, along with criminal justice advocacy groups, are expected to campaign
against the measure.
"If the death penalty is retained, it is now likely that most sentences will be
carried out," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Sacramento-based
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a leading advocacy group for the death
Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who have both expressed
opposition to the death penalty in their careers, have taken no position yet on
the measure, according to their offices.
(source: Mercury News)