Prop. 34: Kill the death penalty?
Capital punishment has been a recurring issue in California at least since the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman, the infamous “Red Light Bandit” who robbed and sometimes raped women after pulling them over with a red light on his car. Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown was a reluctant opponent of capital punishment when he was governor, but he declined executive clemency after Chessman’s numerous stays ran out.
Pat Brown’s son Jerry who, by most reports, convinced his then-governor father to grant Chessman a 60-day stay of execution, stood vigil outside San Quentin to protest the execution of Aaron Mitchell and later, as governor himself, he vetoed legislation to reinstate the death penalty.
That veto was overridden by the legislature, a sign of how deep support ran for capital punishment in California.
Now, another effort is on the ballot to repeal the penalty that currently faces 726 death row inmates, the most condemned inmates in any state by a wide margin. By comparison, Florida has 407 death row inmates and Texas follows with 308.
Thirty-three states and the federal government still impose capital punishment, although New Mexico still has two condemned inmates and Connecticut has 11 who weren’t covered retroactively when those states abolished the death penalty in 2009 and 2012.
California’s commitment to capital punishment has cost an estimated $4 billion since 1978 – when the death penalty was reinstated – and since then the state has performed only 13 executions.
A 2011 study by federal appeals court judge Arthur Alarcón and law professor Paula Mitchell predicts death penalty costs will explode to $9 billion by 2030.
That study concludes that prosecuting death penalty cases costs $184 million a year more than if the accused had been prosecuted for life without the possibility of parole.
The average length of time California’s death row inmates currently await execution is about 20 years.
Other compelling statistics about death row inmates from the California Department of Corrections (CDC) lend fuel to the death penalty debate. Breaking condemned inmates into ethnic categories, CDC reports that 35 percent are white, 36 percent are black and close to 23 percent are Hispanic.
Twenty condemned prisoners, or 1.52 percent, are women, predominantly white.
Some death penalty critics view the ethnic distribution of condemned inmates as discriminatory, and they suggest that the geographic distribution of capital crime convictions is also skewed against minorities. Los Angeles County, the state’s most populated jurisdiction, accounts for almost 31 percent of all death row inmates – a total of 226 condemned prisoners.
Sonoma County has no listed death-row inmates, presumably because mass-murderer Ramon Salcido and Polly Klaas killer Richard Allen Davis were tried and convicted in other counties under changes of venue.
But when it comes to statistics, death penalty proponents have an earful. Opponents of Proposition 34, including Polly Klaas’s father Marc Klaas, state that the victims of California’s capital murderers include: 225 children; 43 police officers; 235 victims raped and murdered; 90 victims tortured and murdered.
Death penalty supporters argue that less than 2 percent of murderers are condemned to die and those who are have been sentenced by the unanimous votes of citizen juries.
Critics of a death penalty ban insist that life sentences without the possibility of parole would cost at least $50,000 a year for each inmate sentenced to life.
But proponents point out that, given the state’s current death row population, that annual cost would be about $36.3 million, far less than the estimated $184 million a year cost of litigating death sentences.
Absent from most published arguments against Proposition 34 is the historic claim that the death penalty deters crime. That may be because there is strong disagreement over whether there is any measurable deterrent effect from capital punishment. An Emory University study purported to find a statistical relationship between capital punishment and a reduction in murder cases, even establishing the claim that each execution, on average, deters the murder of 1.5 African-Americans.
But that study has been roundly ridiculed by critics, including an ACLU response that argued, “People commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because they are mentally ill, giving little or no thought to the
possible consequences of their acts.”
Whatever the reality of deterrence, no one seems to be making an issue of it in this election and most proponents of the death penalty seem to be
arguing that no other sentence gives appropriate justice to victims and their families.
Proponents of abolition counter that more than 100 innocent people have been convicted nationwide, and lifelong imprisonment avoids the possibility of taking innocent lives.
If Proposition 34 passes, California would become the 18th state to abolish capital punishment. Around the world, 139 counties have abolished the death penalty, including U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico.
Chances of passage remain unclear, but an Oct. 26 Los Angeles Times poll indicate opposition to Proposition 34 had closed to a 3-percent margin.
Whether the public will move that margin far enough for a historic rejection of the death penalty remains to be seen.