Battle shaping up for November death penalty vote

On Nov. 6, California voters are likely to be able to vote on abolishing the state’s death penalty. (Photo used under Creative Commons from Flickr user mikecogh)

As this year’s election grows closer, the battle lines are being drawn over the future of the death penalty in California.

This Nov. 6, voters are likely to be able to vote to abolish the state’s death penalty. If voted into action, the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act,” also known as the SAFE California Act, will replace California’s death penalty with life imprisonment without parole. It will also put the $100 million currently set aside for death penalty related costs in a fund to aid state law enforcement.

California is one of 35 states that currently allow the death penalty. The last state execution was in 2006. If approved, the SAFE California Act will eliminate the death penalty as an option in murder cases, and would also convert the death sentences of the 725 inmates currently on death row into life sentences without parole.

Activists seeking to abolish California’s death penalty spent the last few months gathering signatures to ensure its placement on the November ballot. Roughly 5,000 volunteers gathered roughly 800,000 signatures — 300,000 more than required to get the initiative on the ballot.

The signatures are currently being verified by local officials. But the sheer number makes it highly unlikely that the initiative won’t make it onto the November ballot, people tracking the matter said.

Alyssa Dougherty, a Stanford sophomore and volunteer signature collector, worked closely with the Stanford Law School to obtain signatures from her fellow students. Dougherty says she sought to repeal the death penalty after reading “Dead Man Walking,” a 1993 nonfiction book by a Roman Catholic nun who is a leading advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. Dougherty hopes to persuade others at Stanford to get involved as Election Day nears.

“The most important aspect of the SAFE campaign is raising awareness so that ignorance will not continue to drive this antiquated and inhumane form of punishment,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty hopes that providing a clear accounting of the economic costs of the death penalty will put taxpayers on SAFE California’s side.

A June 2011 study found that Californians have spent approximately $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, a time period during which only 13 executions were carried out. The study was conducted by Arthur L. Alarcon – a judge who formerly sought the death penalty as an attorney — and Loyola law school professor, Paula Mitchell.

“Most people are shocked to discover that the United States is the only NATO country that still implements the death penalty as a means of capital punishment,” Dougherty said. “I think it’s crucial that our decisions regarding the abolition of the death penalty mirror the modernity of our time.”

Despite the SAFE campaign’s impressive signature turnout and passionate volunteers, Californians still support the death penalty by a margin of more than two to one, according to at least one survey.

A Field Poll of California voters last September found that 68 percent of those polled favored retaining the death penalty for serious crimes while only 27 percent favored abolishing it. The Field Poll was established in 1947 as an independent, non-partisan, media-sponsored public opinion news service.

Experts say such surveys show how difficult it will be to repeal the death penalty.

“While public support for the death penalty is declining, both across the country generally and in California in particular, polling data would suggest the initiative is likely to fail,” said Stanford law professor Mark Kelman.

Kelman said voters still feel a sense of moral obligation to support the death penalty.

“I think a majority still feels committed to the idea that intentional killers typically deserve to be executed, and also believe that capital punishment must deter homicides,” Kelman added. “The proportion of people who believe this has been shrinking but I would be shocked if it dropped below 50 percent by this fall, when voters will vote on the initiative.”

Regardless of the Field Poll’s numbers, SAFE California advocates remain optimistic that voters will pass the initiative. The organization plans on moving forward with the help of more volunteers and partner organizations such as Amnesty International.

“We believe in person-to-person interaction,” said Miriam Gerace, a spokesperson for SAFE California. “We want to send volunteers out to public places to have honest conversations with the voters. This is the first time voters will get to make a choice, and we are hopeful that they’ll make the right one.”

Still, pro-capital punishment groups are starting to prepare to fight the ballot initiative.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based organization that advocates on behalf of crime victims, is opposing the initiative on legal grounds, arguing that the SAFE California Act’s proposed $100-million fund is unconstitutional.

Michael Rushford, President and CEO of the foundation, says that the SAFE initiative violates the single-subject rule, a constitutional law that says ballot initiatives are only allowed to address one main issue. Rushford says that by attempting to both abolish the death penalty and establish a fund with the same measure, the initiative does not adhere to this rule.

“We will take legal action to strike [the initiative] down on that basis,” Rushford said.

Meanwhile, some state legislators are looking to make it easier to implement the death penalty. Republican State Senator Joel Anderson recently introduced two measures that would help streamline the implementation of the death penalty in California by making California the first state to eliminate guaranteed, automatic appeals for murderers sentenced to death.

California governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris have yet to weigh in on Anderson’s proposed legislation, but Anderson has received backing from law enforcement officials, including San Joaquin County District Attorney Jim Willit.

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