With Propositions 62 and 66, California voters must choose between abolishing the death penalty or reforming it.
LOS ANGELES, CA — With two rival propositions before them, Californians have a life or death decision to make this November.
Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty, sparing the lives of 747 men and women currently on Death Row. Proposition 66 would preserve the death penalty by trying to speed up a broken system that has ground executions to a halt for more than a decade. Since California reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, 13 people have been executed. That’s less than the number of condemned inmates who killed themselves in that same timeframe.
If Proposition 62 fails and Proposition 66 passes, there are 18 condemned inmates who have already exhausted their appeals and would be eligible for execution right away.
The Case for Death
The case for the death penalty is pretty well illustrated by the very killers on death row, said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.
“Just look at the most heinous cases,” said Hanisee. “Look at the people who murder police officers; individuals who kidnap, rape, torture and murder children; serial killers who kill again and again.”
The death penalty is for people like the man who executed a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy on Wednesday, she said. It’s for Charles Ng, convicted of raping, torturing and murdering 12 people, added Hanisee. California has no shortage of serial killers awaiting death from the Bay Area’s “speed freak killer,” and Los Angeles’ “toolbox killer,” to Orange County’s Randy Kraft, “the freeway killer,” who raped, tortured and murdered 16 men.
“There needs to be a penalty for the most heinous killers,” said Hanisee.
But Hanisee acknowledges the current system needs reform.
“It is not working, and it certainly can be faster. That’s what 66 is for,” she said. “It’s a lot of technical changes to make the system more efficient without eliminating due process.”
Namely, Proposition 66 aims to save taxpayers money by moving condemned inmates out of single cells in archaic San Quentin prison. Instead they would be moved to more modern and cost-effective prisons and made to share cells. Savings are expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Condemned inmates would also have to work, giving 70 percent of their earnings to victims’ families.
The proposition also looks to speed up the appeals process by requiring the habeas corpus petition process and appeals to be completed within five years after the death sentence. It would also move the appeals from the California Supreme Court back into the trials courts in an effort to speed up the process.
If Proposition 66 passes, Death Row inmates including San Diego’s Cleophus Prince Jr.,”The Clairemont Killer,” and Kevin Cooper, the Chino Hills escaped prisoner turned axe murderer would both be among the 18 death row inmates immediately eligible for execution.
Proposition 66 has the backing of a large swath of the law enforcement community and prosecutors’ offices as well as the state Republican Party. The latest polls show California voters strongly favor reforming the death penalty instead of abolishing it.
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released Sept. 30 shows voters poised to defeat Proposition 62 by an 11 percent margin.
“Voters in California still favor the death penalty for the worst of the worst killers, and it’s an appropriate penalty for the cruel and remorseless killers who actually enjoy killing and causing suffering to innocent victims, especially the repeat offenders,” said Hanisee. “There has to be the ultimate penalty.”
The Cost of Death Row
Executing prisoners is expensive. California taxpayers spent $5 billion to execute the 13 people put to death since 1978, said Jacob Hay, spokesman for Proposition 62. Conversely, abolishing the death penalty would save California $150 million annually, according the legislative analyst’s office. Yet the staggering expense of executing prisoners doesn’t tell the whole story, said Hay.
Society bears a moral burden not to kill innocent people, and the justice system hasn’t proven up to the task, he said. Numbers tell the story. In California, three death row inmates have been exonerated and 156 condemned prisoners have been exonerated nationwide, said Hay.
“Abolishing the death penalty is the only way to guarantee California never executes an innocent person,” said Hay.
The death penalty is disproportionately sought against minority defendants, and there is a dramatic imbalance of its use throughout the state. District attorneys in Orange, San Diego and Riverside, for example, seek the death penalty at significantly higher rates than their counterparts around the state, Hay said.
Hay is critical of the fixes outlined in Proposition 66. Efforts to speed up the appeals process fail to take into account the shortage of attorneys qualified and willing to take on death penalty appeals, said Hay. Shifting the cases from the California Supreme Court to the trial courts is only going to further jam up superior courts already facing major backlogs, he added.
Proposition 62 would convert all death sentences to life in prison.
“It guarantees the worst criminals will never be released, and it requires them to work and pay restitution,” Hay said.
Proposition 62 has some unlikely supporters.
“I led the campaign to bring the death penalty back to California in 1978. It was a costly mistake. Now I know we just hurt the victims’ families we were trying to help and wasted taxpayer dollars,” Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to bring back the death penalty in 1978, said in a written release. “The death penalty cannot be fixed. We need to replace it, lock up murderers for good, make them work, and move on.”
Former Los Angeles district attorneys Gil Garcetti and John Van de Kamp have also come out in favor of Proposition 62, renouncing their former support for capital punishment. Jeanne Woodford, former death row warden at San Quentin is also in favor of Proposition 62.
Victims have also spoken out against the death penalty.
“California’s death penalty system is a long, agonizing ordeal for our family,” said Beth Webb, whose sister was killed in a mass shooting in Seal Beach. “My sister’s killer confessed to his crime, but because the district attorney insists on seeking the death penalty, we are stuck in the penalty phase of a trial that keeps our wounds open. The death penalty is an empty promise of justice. Life without parole would stop the endless court dates and let the healing begin.”