April 25, 2012

An Interesting Test Case

For years, the running meme when it came to the death penalty was that it had a majority of popular support (if not an overwhelming majority), but that support becomes a lot less solid once the possibility of life without parole is put on the table. This fall, we’ll get some idea of whether that dynamic really exists, at least in California, where there will be an initiative on the ballot this fall to repeal the death penalty and commute the sentences of the state’s current death row residents to life without the possibility of parole.

Although this is, to my knowledge, the first time the issue is going directly to voters, there has been a growing legislative trend in favor of repeal:
During the last five years, four states have replaced the death penalty and Connecticut is soon to follow.
Connecticut’s repeal is particularly interesting, because it is crafted to keep current death row inmates on schedule for death and only apply the ban prospectively. I’m not sure the courts will let that fly, but I guess we’ll see.

California’s death penalty is not the most robust in the world – it ain’t Texas, after all – but a repeal by initiative would be an important step in the ongoing tussle over capital punishment. Why now? Not because liberal do-gooders like me are growing in influence:
Backing the new measure are Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California's death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system.

Although their views on the proposition are unknown, former California Chef Justice Ronald M. George and current Chief Tani Cantil-Sakauye, both Republican former prosecutors, have stated publicly that the death penalty system is not working.
Part of the swing comes from the increasing number of cases where people get off of death row years after their convictions thanks to scientific breakthroughs that shed light on unreliable witnesses, shady cops and prosecutors, or just wrong conclusions reached by jurors. Of course, there’s a financial component as well:
A three-year study by a judge and a law professor concluded last year that the death penalty in California costs $183 million more to administer than life without possibility of parole, and that California's 13 executions cost taxpayers $4 billion. The additional expense includes legal costs for expanded trials and appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.
I’m against the death penalty and have been for a long time. Aside from equal protection issues, however, I think it’s undoubtedly constitutional. So the only hope to get rid of it is through political action. And while I’d like to see a full-throated rejection of capital punishment on moral/philosophical grounds, if it comes down to financial reasons, I’ll take that. So, as much as also despise initiative setups like California’s, I hope this one turns out the right way.

Maybe, like so many other things, California will lead the rest of the nation where it needs to go.

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