San Francisco—A perfect alignment of advantageous factors enabled opponents of capital punishment to place its abolition on the ballot for the first time in California.
Among these elements, the release of a study exposing the exorbitant cost of maintaining capital punishment was key to ensuring that voters this November will get to decide whether to scrap the death penalty in favor of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Organizers of the statewide coalition behind Proposition 34 met frequently last year to mull over and prepare their strategy and tactics to qualify for the ballot.
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“But our efforts really turned a corner when a new, comprehensive study showed the steep financial cost of capital punishment,” said Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for the SAFE California Campaign (Savings, Full Enforcement for California Act).
The study conducted by U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon—who prosecuted capital cases when he was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney in the 1950s—and a Loyola Law School professor, Paula M. Mitchell, was a fiscal bombshell in light of the state’s severe budget crisis.
Their report revealed that the state had spent $4 billion on the death penalty while carrying out 13 executions since 1978, when the punishment was revived.
Moreover, the study projected that by 2030, death-penalty expenditure will balloon to $9 billion for death-row housing, health care, legal appeals and the actual executions. In addition, today’s California death-row population of 724 inmates—already the largest in the nation—would grow to more than 1,000.
Based on previously unavailable Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records, the highly credible study shifted the balance of forces in the death-penalty debate practically overnight.
Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles district attorney, who had sought numerous death penalty convictions, immediately and publicly renounced his support for capital punishment.
The astronomical cost of maintaining the death penalty, he explained, turned him around. He’s now one of SAFE California’s spokespeople.
Also, highly publicized exonerations of death-row inmates over the years led Garcetti to wonder if some of the inmates awaiting execution in California may have been wrongfully convicted.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 138 inmates have been released from death rows nationwide since 1973 because they were proved innocent.
“It’s not surprising that some on death row were wrongfully convicted, if they went through similar settings that I did,” said Franky Carrillo. He spent 20 years of a 30-year term in prison for murder, starting when he was age 16—after he was mistakenly tagged as the perpetrator.
Carrillo recalls a process marked by an error-filled photo line-up, testimony by a single uncorroborated witness and lack of forensic evidence, which led to a conviction that took him and his supporters two decades to overturn. He now actively campaigns for Prop. 34.
Besides Garcetti’s, other prominent defections boosted Prop. 34’s momentum.
Ron Briggs, the son of State Sen. John Briggs, who sponsored the current death penalty law, soured on capital punishment after seeing its fiscal demand and the lengthy process that, he said, added to the suffering of the victims’ families.
Similarly, Donald Heller, a former federal prosecutor who in the late 1970s helped Briggs toughen the death penalty law, had a change of heart. Both Heller and the younger Briggs are today vocal supporters of Prop. 34.
“Worst Possible Option”
Their names reinforced the already powerful voices supporting the proposition, such as former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford, now executive director of Death Penalty Focus. She often speaks of the personal stress on corrections personnel, including her, who had to carry out executions.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is listed as a signer of the Prop. 34 argument in the official state election booklet. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called retaining capital punishment “the worst possible option.”
However, former California Governor Pete Wilson signed the official argument against Prop. 34, which does not necessarily help to support his side of the issue.
Wilson is highly unpopular among Hispanics for leading the charge in 1994 to deprive undocumented immigrants of public services through Proposition 187. The state’s Republican Party has yet to recover from its loss of support from the state’s largest minority community.
But even before the Alarcon-Mitchell report, said Minsker, anti-death penalty forces felt hopeful about their chances of successfully gathering more than the required 504,000 voter signatures to get their proposition on the ballot.
Organizers were aware of the growing preference for life without parole over the death penalty in the state and of the growing skepticism over the cost and effectiveness of capital punishment as a crime deterrent.
A Field Poll released in September last year found increased public preference for life without the possibility of parole (48 percent) instead of the death penalty (40 percent) for the first time in 10 years.
Voters, therefore, would be more receptive to Prop. 34’s message of using the savings from the death penalty’s replacement with life without parole—about $130 million a year—for crime prevention and the pursuit of criminals.
“We also figured it’s going to be a presidential election, when voter turnouts are larger,” Minsker explained.
With President Obama running for re-election, the campaign’s political consultants projected a 40 percent turnout of voters of color, she added.
“And we know the strong opposition to the death penalty, especially among blacks and Latinos,” Minsker said.
How fairly capital punishment has been imposed on racial lines has become an insistent question. “It’s very obvious that there’s discrimination, with most people on death row being minorities,” remarked Carrillo.
Nearly two-thirds of California’s 724 prisoners on death row are minorities, mostly black and Latino.
Opposition to Prop. 34
Supporters of capital punishment, such as the Peace Officers Research Association Political Issues Committee, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and several organizations of prosecutors believe Prop. 34 will “lose traction” as the election draws near.
“They may have gained ground in the beginning,” said Jan Scully, Sacramento County District Attorney and statewide co-chair of Californians for Justice and Public Safety—No on 34. But, she went on, “In the end people will listen to the law-enforcement professionals who want justice for the victims and the death penalty for the most heinous criminals.”
Scully argues that the majority of California’s voters still back capital punishment (61 percent, according to Survey USA), but that abolitionists are trying to mislead voters by arguing only that the death penalty is too expensive to sustain.
Scully concedes that Prop. 34 has raised more money than her side, from contributors like investor Nicholas Pritzker, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, the Atlantic Advocacy Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Minsker, though, reported that by the beginning of this year, Prop. 34 had gathered nearly $2 million from donations large and small. No on 34 has raised only $200,000 to date.
“We’re a grassroots effort,” Scully said, “and we really need just enough to get our message across, because we know the voters are on the side of keeping the death penalty for the worst of the worst.”
A shifting national climate also may be helping anti-death penalty campaigners in the state. There is a noticeable trend of declining support for capital punishment nationwide.
A Gallup poll last year found that support for the death penalty for murder dropped three points to a 39-year low—61 percent, from 64 percent in 2010. And popular opinion that the punishment is imposed fairly plunged by six points from the year before.
Already, 17 states have abolished capital punishment, Connecticut being the most recent. Oregon has placed a moratorium on it. States currently debating the death penalty’s repeal are Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.
In California, supporters of Prop. 34 expect “a very tough election with lots of scare tactics” from death-penalty supporters, said Minsker. But they believe the momentum is on their side and that they have a good shot at making California the 18th abolitionist state.