As We See It: Weighing the death penalty







It would be yet another example of making public policy through initiative, but the drive to place a state death penalty referendum on the November ballot is long overdue.

Backers of the initiative say they have already collected 800,000 signatures, far more than the 504,760 valid signatures required to make the ballot.

If the initiative does make it, as is likely, it will mark the third time in 40 years voters will be asked to decide whether California should have the death penalty. The SAFE California Act would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

No matter your opinion on the ultimate morality of capital punishment, the way it has come down has been a travesty in this state. It would be one thing if the death penalty was effectively carried out, but under no stretch of the imagination has this happened.

We’re under no illusion voters will automatically just end the death penalty. History teaches otherwise. In 1972, after the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, more than two-thirds of voters overrode the decision. Then, in 1978, 71 percent of voters approved an expanded death penalty law passed by legislators over Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto.

Then, in 1986, voters tossed state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, an even more adamant foe of the death penalty, and two other justices off the bench after the judges had regularly voted to overturn death sentences.

Although support nationally for the death penalty has been dropping slightly, a September poll in California on the issue showed 68 percent support, although respondents — when asked the appropriate penalty for convicted murderers — supported life in prison without the possibility of parole over death. No state, however, has ever repealed capital punishment by a ballot initiative.

This time the backers include Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw four executions when she was warden of San Quentin State Prison, and Donald Heller, the lawyer who wrote the 1978 initiative and who now says he made a “terrible mistake.”

One of the main arguments made by backers of the initiative is the wasteful spending propping up capital punishment in the state. A 2008 study by a state commission found the death penalty was costing taxpayers $137 million a year for trials and appeals and the maintenance of Death Row. Substituting life in prison without the possibility of parole would drop this figure to $11.5 million, the commission said.

Another study last year put the cost even higher, at $184 million, and put the overall cost since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 at $4 billion. Backers are going to argue that these costs are prohibitive at a time of financial crisis in California, where schools and public safety are at financial risk.

And here’s another figure: $308 million. That’s what each of the 13 executions carried out in California have cost since capital punishment was reinstated. Thirteen. At present, there are 725 condemned prisoners on Death Row in our state.

Among the many reasons so few executions have been carried out is that they’ve been halted since February 2006, after a federal judge ruled that poor staff training, monitoring and faulty procedures could possibly subject a condemned person to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

Deterrent to heinous crimes or a legal and unaffordable boondoggle? This is a case where Californians should listen to the arguments, pro and con, weigh the evidence, and then vote their conscience.


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