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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

California Voters Face Choice: End Death Penalty, or Speed It Up

San Quentin State prison's brand new death chamber
San Quentin State prison's brand new death chamber
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Beth Webb remembers talking with friends at her sister’s Christmas party several years ago, wondering aloud if she would support the death penalty if someone she knew were murdered. Then, in 2011, her sister, Laura Webb Elody, was killed along with seven other people as she worked at a hair salon in nearby Seal Beach.

For weeks, Ms. Webb wanted revenge. And the local district attorney promised she would get it in the form of the death penalty. But five years later, the man who killed her sister and wounded her mother is still alive, and Ms. Webb is now helping to lead the campaign to abolish the death penalty here.

Tami Alexander has waited even longer. The man who killed her mother-in-law and sister-in-law has been on death row for more than two decades.

The death penalty has long been one of the most contentious issues in the state. Though California has executed only 13 people since the 1970s, it has sentenced hundreds to death and has more prisoners on death row than any other state. California has repeatedly been criticized for keeping those people in a suspended state for years, costing Californians billions of dollars.

There have been attempts before to reform the system — just four years ago a ballot proposition failed in its effort to abolish the death penalty entirely. Now voters are being presented with their latest choice in the matter: Should the state get out of the business of capital punishment completely or enact a plan to make executions happen more quickly?

Both proposals accept that the state’s death penalty system — which costs an estimated $150 million a year for trials, appeals and death row facilities — is broken. The state’s process is so prolonged, “with only the remote possibility of death,” that it is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge wrote in a 2014 ruling, calling the system dysfunctional and arbitrary. The 747 inmates on death row remain in a legal limbo: There has not been an execution in the state since 2006, as the state’s lethal injection protocol remains tied up in the courts.

This year, voters will decide between two competing ballot measures: Proposition 62, which would end the death penalty and replace it with life without parole, and Proposition 66, which would speed up the executions by accelerating appeals for inmates on death row. A victory for either side will transform the state’s system for capital punishment.

When the death penalty was last on the state ballot, the focus remained primarily on money — with opponents arguing that the state was spending billions without executing anyone. In California, most inmates spend at least two decades on death row. Far more have died from natural causes or suicide than have been executed.

After the measure to repeal it lost by four percentage points in 2012, supporters of the death penalty quickly pulled together to find a way to get their proposal to voters as quickly as possible.

“We knew we needed to say to California voters as quickly as possible that we have to get this fixed,” said Mike Ramos, the San Bernardino district attorney and one of the leading proponents of Proposition 66. “Citizens are getting rightly frustrated that we are holding the worst of the worst, people who are evil, on hold indefinitely. The families would like justice, the people want justice, and what we have does not work.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: The New York Times, Jennifer Medina, Sept. 20, 2016

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