Voters Might Get to Kill Death Penalty

Editor’s Note: Some corrections to this article were added after comments from Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California.

JULY 9, 2011

By ALI MEYER

If SB 490 becomes law, voters could have a chance to kill the death penalty. In the key section, the bill stipulates, “Provides that the state shall not carry out any execution following the enactment of this act unless the voters fail to approve this act.” Those currently on death row would have their sentences commuted to life in prison without chance of parole. The last person executed in California was in 2006.

SB 490 is by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland. On July 7, it passed in the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a 5-2 vote.  The bill now is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Proponents say the death penalty costs too much. Opponents of the bill are fighting to keep it because they believe the death penalty deters bad behavior and provides justice for victims.

Hancock focused foremost on the costs of keeping inmates on death row, instead of putting them back into the general prison population.  “Since 1978, when voters approved the death penalty, only 13 people have been executed,” she said. “That’s 13 people over 33 years; 714 are still on death row at a cost of $184 million a year.  Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prison system. California’s death row is the largest and the most expensive in the United States. It is not helping protect our people, but helping bankrupt us.”

Expensive Executions

The cost factor became a a bigger issue after a new study was released last month showing that the death penalty cost California $4 billion since 1978. The study was by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.

Costs have risen largely because of the lengthy appeals process that keeps death row inmates in limbo, sometimes for decades. Recent court rulings have limited the means of execution over concerns of violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” One current holdup is the difficulty in getting the drug sodium thiopental, which courts have allowed to be used in executions.

Despite the new cost study, most backers of SB 490 previously opposed the death penalty on general principle. Moreover, if California began executing those on death row at the rate of Texas, an average of 23 per year the past decade, the cost per execution would drop quickly.

Some families of murder victims testified in favor of the bill.   “Today in California we’re laying off police officers, we’re closing crime labs, we’re eliminating victim services, and ending cold case investigations,” said Judy Kerr, whose brother was murdered. “We have a crisis of unsolved murders that are over 45 percent.  Today there are thousands of murder victim families who watch while we throw millions of dollars every year into a farce of a justice system that does nothing to address the needs of real families.”

Backers of the death penalty stated their reasons for opposing SB 490. “We share the public support of the death penalty,” said Cory Salzillo, representing the California District Attorneys Association. “We believe it is the appropriate and carefully measured response to the most heinous crimes that society faces.  The death penalty deters future criminality if by no other means than by permanently incapacitating potential repeat offenders.” He agreed that the death penalty is costly. But he did not agree that we should abolish it just because it’s expensive. “We cannot put a price on justice,” he said.

Insult to Victims

A representative from Crime Victims United called the bill an insult to victims. “Those who have offenders serving on death row believe that they are provided justice for the atrocious crimes committed against them and their families,” she said.

Committee members differed in their responses.  Assemblyman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, spoke out against the bill. He said the death penalty was a deterrent to crime and that amending this may lead to amending life imprisonment down the road.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-El Camino Real, said he would support the bill because he was in favor of abolishing the death penalty though a vote of the people.

Should the bill pass, will Gov. Jerry Brown sign it?  The history of his position on the death penalty has been teeter-tottering over the years.  In the 1960s, when popular opinion and court decisions moved against the death penalty, he protested against it.

In 1977, he appointed the controversial Rose Bird to be the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Despite a 1978 initiative in which voters approved bringing back the death penalty, her court reversed a high number of death sentences. No execution was carried out in California until 1992. Since then, only 13 have been carried out. In 1986, voters booted Bird from the court.

In his 2010 campaign for governor, Brown pledged he would not grant blanket clemency to everyone on death row. The Sacramento Bee captured a video of Gov. Jerry Brown’s interview in 2010 about the death penalty.  “I said I would prefer a society that did not have to use the death penalty,” he said. “But my preference has been overruled, and not only by the Legislature but by initiative.”

Because the bill allows a vote of the people to decide the fate of the death penalty, he might sign SB 490. But Brown also obviously is aware of Rose Bird’s fate.

7 comments

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  1. Centurion
    Centurion 10 July, 2011, 23:01

    The writer assumes that California voters would vote to enact this bill. I am not so sure.

    I think many of us would prefer a bill that would streamline the process and reduce the waiting time from the current “20 years to never” to something a little more realistic. Like maybe 5 years. Convicted death row felons currently get a nearly unlimited amount of appeals for what often prove to be frivelous and outright ridiculous issues.

    We need to fix the process, not do away with it.

    Reply this comment
  2. ExPFCWintergreen
    ExPFCWintergreen 11 July, 2011, 07:39

    There is no way to fix the current process by which the death penalty is (not) imposed. Because of this, California should just simply acknowledge reality and eliminate the penalty. Life without possibility of parole is a perfectly effective alternative. Contrary to what some might think, it really is life without possibility of parole, and persons sentenced to LWOP are housed in their own version of death row. They are in Level V, which is basically solitary confinement, with one hour per day in sunlight, in their own cell. These inmates never see any other person, and live out their lives in a little cell by themselves. In my opinion, this is just as good as a death sentence.

    Reply this comment
  3. Brian R Marvel
    Brian R Marvel 11 July, 2011, 11:24

    Correct me if I am wrong but my understanding of why the Death Penalty in CA is so expensive is the State pays for all the appeals; prosecution and defense. Unlike Florida and Texas, those states only pay for one appeal.

    Reply this comment
  4. Andy
    Andy 12 July, 2011, 08:06

    The last person executed in CA was Tookie Williams in 2005; someones got their ‘facts’ wrong.

    I am for elimination of the death penalty for religious reasons; also I believe in this day and age when it’s a long time before the penalty is carried out it serves as no deterrent.

    Reply this comment
  5. Centurion
    Centurion 12 July, 2011, 20:43

    ExPFCWintergree, your assertions about LWOP conditions in California prisons are factually incorrect. California’s prison classification system allows LWOP inmates to…with good behavior over time, work their way into lower custody facilities. Google “Jimmy Smith, Onion Field Killer,” and read the article. Convicted of kidnapping and killing a police officer and sentenced to death in the early 70’s, sentence commuted to LWOP by the Rose Bird court several years later, he was my clerk in a level III prison. He subsequently PAROLED to the streets of LA, failed to report to his parole officer, and died in the LA county jail.

    As for level 4 prisons being solitary confinement, you are again mistaken. Our prison system has several mainline level 4 yards where LWOP’s live in two man cells, walk to a dining room in groups for meals, are allowed daily yard time and day rooom priveleges at night.

    Even in our level 4 SHU units (to include Pelican Bay), many of these inmates are double celled, and all the cells are on open tiers where they communicate with each other routinely. So the term “solitary confinement”, when applied to conditions in any of California’s prisons, is innacurate.

    I am a retired correctional officer from the Calif Dpt of Corrections. I have worked level IV mainline facilities, level IV SHU facilities, level III facilities, and I know what I am talking about.

    Reply this comment
  6. Jim
    Jim 19 July, 2011, 16:24

    I say we follow the example of Texas, groups can make numbers say what ever they want. Execution is a deterrent of at least one.

    Reply this comment
  7. Margo Schulter
    Margo Schulter 13 August, 2011, 21:08

    The critical fact here is that permanent imprisonment or life without parole (LWOP) has been the law in California for the most heinous first degree murders involving one or more “special circumstances” since 1977, and that the law means what says — with an “escape clause” only for the handful out of 3700 and more prisoners receiving this sentence who have later been found actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted. Otherwise, it is a very effective means of incapacitation, but with room to correct the rare miscarriage of justice.
    As for the rightly remembered murder of Official Ian James Campbell in the “Onion Field” case of 1963, this was long before the time of the Bird Court, and also before the mandatory sentence of LWOP which now rightly applies to the first degree murder of a peace officer in California (and has since 1977). Ironically, the “Little Lindberg Law” then in effect in California (Penal Code Section 209) gave the perpetrators a motive to kill the kidnapped officer under the misunderstanding that his kidnapping in itself might lead them to the gas chamber. In fact, if the officer had been released unharmed, the death penalty would not have applied. (In 1977, in _Coker v. Georgia_, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for nonhomicidal offenses such as sexual assault or kidnapping.) This is absolutely no excuse for the cold-blooded killing of an officer who died to protect us all, but a lesson on the paradoxes of “deterrence.” The short story is that LWOP has been place in California for four decades, with current law also requiring that LWOP prisoners perform labor and make restitution to families of murder victims and support other services for victims. Passing SB 490 and ending our dysfunctional death penalty will free $184 million each year to get more cops and homicide investigators on the beat, and deliver better services to crime victims. That is justice!

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