California voters to decide fate of death penalty

October 25, 2012 7:47:19 PM PDT
One of the big questions voters will face on their ballot next month is whether to do away with the death penalty. Right now, there are 726 prisoners on death row and their sentences will be downgraded to "life in prison" if Proposition 34 passes.

California abolished the death penalty in 1972 after both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts found it unconstitutional. It was reinstated by voters in 1978. Since then, 13 people have been executed in California. There have been no executions since 2006, when a moratorium was ordered by Judge Jeremy Fogel pending judicial review of a new death chamber and lethal injection protocol at San Quentin.

There are now 726 prisons on death row waiting to hear the outcome of the judicial review and now Prop 34.

"We pay $130 million extra each year for lawyers, investigators, judges, prison guards, all related just to the death penalty, and that's all money that's being wasted that will be saved by Prop 34," says Yes On 34 campaign manager Natasha Minsker. She says Prop 34 would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, would require everyone convicted of murder to work and pay restitution, and she says ending the death penalty would save California $134 million a year. $100 million per year for three years will be redirected to local enforcement. "We need to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole because the death penalty always risks executing an innocent person," she says.

"We end up killing innocent people? Who would that be? I don't know that there is one recorded case of an innocent person being executed in the U.S. in the modern era, certainly not in the state of California," argues Mark Klaas with No On 34. In 1993, Klaas' 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped from her Petaluma home during a slumber party. Richard Allen Davis was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death in 1996. He is still awaiting execution.

"We're talking about 2 percent of the individuals that are charged with murder in the state of California, the worst 2 percent. To now say that 'Oh, they're not going to get the punishment that was doled out to them,' certainly diminishes the criminal justice system, but I think much more importantly, it diminishes the value of my daughter's life," Klaas says.

Lorraine Taylor's 22-year-old twin boys Albadeh and Obadiah were murdered in Oakland in 2001. The case has gone unsolved. "Some crazy person took an AK-47 and just sprayed my boys and took their lives, just like that," she says. "They were both in college and working." She will vote yes on 34 because she likes the idea of more funding for police and she's morally opposed to the death penalty.

"I respect the people who say that for religious, moral or other reasons they shouldn't do that; that's what it should be decided on, not the basis of money," says San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. His desk is covered with pictures of murder victims. He is opposed to Prop 34. He says estimates vary widely on how much money might be saved, that the increased funding for law enforcement would come out of the general fund and only for a few years.

Wagstaffe thinks voters should not decide how they feel about the death penalty based on how much it costs.

The Yes On 34 campaign says the system is irrevocably broken and it's time to face up to that, but Wagstaffe and Klaas believe that with the right state leadership, it can be fixed, and it will be.


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