Debate to the death

Poll numbers reveal underwhelming support to ban death penalty

Over the past decade, the death penalty has grown increasingly unpopular. In 2011, 43 inmates were executed nationwide. In 1999, Texas alone executed more than twice that number. In California, executions have been halted since 2006, after the lethal-injection protocol was declared unconstitutional. And this November, supporters for Proposition 34 hope to extend that moratorium indefinitely.

Prop. 34 proposes replacing the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. It would also earmark $100 million for investigating unsolved murders and rapes, and would force killers to work in prison to help pay restitution to victims. The debate is as impassioned as it is divisive, and a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed only 38 percent support for the measure.

Since 1977, 750 people have been sentenced to death in California state courts, but only 13 have been executed, while 77 have died of natural causes or committed suicide. Despite its infrequent use, capital punishment has cost state taxpayers at least $4 billion in the past three decades.

“We have spent all of this money pretending that people are going to be executed,” said Jeanne Woodford, an ex-warden at San Quentin State Prison and a backer of Prop. 34.

Woodford also contends that California has gotten little back in return. “The death penalty does not improve public safety at all,” she said. “It is not a deterrent. It does nothing to better our lives in any way.”

Another reason law-enforcement types support Prop. 34 is the death penalty’s cost. If it were repealed, California could save $180 million a year, according to a Loyola Law School Los Angeles study.

However, while many major police departments desperately need more funds, there is still strong opposition to Prop. 34 from law-enforcement agencies.

Ron Cottingham, president of the Sacramento-based Peace Officers Research Association of California, is one of the measure’s biggest critics. He contends that the arguments made against the death penalty are deceptive and exaggerated.

“Capital punishment is very judiciously reviewed and applied,” he argued. “It’s only the worst-of-the-worst cases that are actually charged with a capital offense across California.”

Cottingham believes that the problem lies in the exhaustive appeals process. Once sentenced to death, convicts are entitled to a number of appeals under the law. The first is automatic, and it typically takes about a decade to run through the Supreme Court of California. After that, there are both state and federal habeas corpus appeals. It’s normally another 12 years before that process concludes, at which point it isn’t uncommon for the federal court to send the case back to the state level, thereby repeating the process. As a result, the average time for a death-penalty case to go from trial to execution is 25 years, and in 2010, the appeals alone cost taxpayers $58 million.

Backers of Prop. 34 agree that this appeals process is dysfunctional. Along with the huge price tag, the lengthy process takes a toll on crime victims. As many death-row cases are appealed multiple times, the victims’ families often has to return to court over and over again.

“It’s emotionally draining, it’s financially draining, it’s psychologically draining,” said Deldelp Medina, the Northern California victims-outreach coordinator for Death Penalty Focus, a group that supports Prop. 34. “It’s not a process that helps anyone heal in any way, shape or form.”

Opponents of the measure, however, believe that if the appeals process were fixed, the death penalty would work in California. Many point to Texas and Virginia as examples of how capital punishment can work. Both states run capital murder cases through the legal system quickly, resulting in a shorter duration between sentencing and execution. However, this shortened judicial process has led to numerous questionable executions. Also, in both Texas and Virginia, a death-penalty sentence continues to cost notably more than that of life without the possibility of parole.