|California's brand new death chamber|
With public support for capital punishment declining, activists who fell just short of winning a voter repeal of California’s death penalty law in 2012 are preparing for another attempt in November 2016.
Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco organization that was part of the campaign for Proposition 34 in 2012, has filed a proposed state constitutional amendment with election officials that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Once cleared for circulation next month, it would need 585,407 signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot.
The campaign would be led by actor and activist Mike Farrell, who stepped down as executive director of Death Penalty Focus so he could run the initiative effort. Farrell said organizers are making plans to circulate the measure but are awaiting word on fundraising prospects before making a final decision.
Polls and other indicators of the public mood “suggest that people now have a much more clear understanding that this is a system that doesn’t work and doesn’t serve us in any meaningful way,” said Farrell, 76, who headed Death Penalty Focus for 10 years. He played Army Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt in the television series “M*A*S*H.”
Prop. 34 received 48 % of the statewide vote in November 2012. By much wider margins, the voters in 1972 had amended the state Constitution to reinstate the death penalty after the state Supreme Court struck it down, and expanded the law in 1978 to cover most first-degree murder cases.
“We’ve voted on it enough times that it should be regarded as settled, but that isn’t going to stop them,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. He said he expects another close vote next year.
There would be no need for a vote if higher courts uphold a federal judge’s July 2014 decision that declared California’s death penalty law unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney said a state legal system that takes 20 years or more to resolve cases, largely because of a lack of adequate funding, has led to arbitrary selection of a few inmates for execution while the others spend their lives in prison. An appeals court, however, appeared unlikely to sustain that ruling at a hearing Aug. 31.
Legislatures in 19 states have abolished the death penalty, although Nebraska, the latest to repeal its law, could reinstate it in a referendum that supporters of capital punishment have qualified for the November 2016 ballot. Only one state, Oregon, has overturned the death penalty by ballot initiative — twice, in 1914 and in 1964 — but each time, the state’s voters reversed course and restored the death penalty law, which remains in effect.
In California, a Field Poll in September 2014 found support for the death penalty at its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Asked if they favored keeping death as a punishment for serious crimes, 56 % of surveyed voters said yes, 34 % said no and 10 percent had no opinion.
That majority — down from 68 % as recently as 2011 — has shrunk further in other surveys when voters were asked whether they would prefer death or life without parole for convicted murderers, and when costs were added into the mix. A 2011 study by a federal judge and a law professor said California taxpayers were spending $184 million a year on a death penalty system that has executed 13 prisoners since 1992, and none since January 2006.
If the death penalty is back on the ballot next year, the outcome “will depend on the quality of campaigning on both sides, the advertising and the turnout,” said the Field Poll’s director, Mark DiCamillo. He said turnout is usually higher in a presidential election year, particularly among younger voters, who are generally less supportive of the death penalty than other age groups.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, October 13, 2015
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