Report: California condemns many, executes few

The death penalty is a very local affair, with most condemnations and executions occurring in just a tiny handful of the nation’s counties, according to a new report from a group opposing capital punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Center’s study found no California counties rank among the top 15 among the two percent of counties responsible for
over half of the executions since 1976; Texas boasts nine. The Golden State went from conducting executions at a glacial pace to conducting none at all after being stymied by a court order.

But five California counties – Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Alameda and San Diego – make the top 10 among the 2 percent responsible for more than half of the nation’s current death row population. California voters – despite no executions having occurred here since 2006 – keeps condemning inmates to death and last year rejected a ballot measure to abolish capital punishment. California now has 742 death-row inmates.


April 30 hearing on bills to speed death penalty

Hot from having successfully opposed last year’s ballot measure to abolish California’s death penalty, prosecutors now are pushing legislation to put condemned inmates to death faster.

The two bills by state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, and sponsored by the California District Attorneys Association, will be heard next Tuesday, April 30 by the state Senate Public Safety Committee.

San Quentin's death chamber“Removing unnecessary impediments to carrying out the punishment meted out by judges and juries will ensure timely justice,” Anderson said in a news release. “It is clear that the death penalty needs reforming when condemned inmates are often living longer on death row than their victims did their entire lives.”

SB 779 makes various reforms including speeding up the appointment of appellate counsel and certification of the record, which under current law can take years. SCA 13 would let California’s appellate courts hear death penalty appeals; for now, only the state Supreme Court hears them, creating a legal bottleneck.

CDAA last year opposed Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty; the initiative was rejected by 52 percent of voters in November. The initiative’s supporters had argued in part that capital punishment is too costly for the state to afford, given the many years of legal wrangling and special incarceration that it requires.

“Prosecutors seek justice and stand for victims,” CDAA president Carl Adams said in the news release. “Regardless of the fate of these two bills, CDAA will continue to carry this banner and hold the state to its promise to appropriately punish the worst offenders.”

California now has 733 condemned inmates. It has executed 14 since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, with the last of those in January 2006. A federal judge later that year found the state’s lethal-injection procedure was unconstitutional because it might cause the inmate pain; new regulations were enacted in 2010 but have never been used.


Maryland is about to abolish the death penalty

Maryland lawmakers today approved what California voters narrowly rejected a few months ago: abolition of the death penalty.

The Maryland House of Delegates voted 82-56 to replace that state’s death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole; the state Senate had approved the bill 27-20 last week. Gov. Martin O’Malley had introduced the repeal legislation and so there’s no question that he’ll sign it into law now; in doing so, he’ll make Maryland the sixth state in as many years to do away with capital punishment.

“State after state is deciding that the death penalty is simply not worth the risks and costs to retain,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a news release. “Maryland is the sixth state in recent years to choose this course, but it won’t be the last.”

California voters in November rejected Proposition 34, which like Maryland’s law would’ve replaced the death penalty with life without parole; 48 percent voted for it, 52 percent against.

The defeat came despite the elevated turnout brought by a presidential election and after supporters had reframed the issue in part as one of fiscal wisdom, arguing the tight-budgeted state can’t afford the tremendous cost of putting and keeping so many people on death row.

California now has 732 condemned inmates, but has executed only 13 since reinstating its death penalty in 1978; the last execution was in 2006. Prop. 34 would’ve commuted all currently condemned inmates’ sentences to life without parole.

Maryland has carried out five executions since 1976, but has only five inmates now on its death row. The new law won’t directly affect those five, leaving it up to O’Malley to decide whether their sentences should be commuted separately.


Report: Death penalty continues to fade in U.S.

Though California voters rejected a ballot measure last month that would’ve abolished the state’s death penalty, a new report shows capital punishment continues to decline nationwide.

2012 executionsThe Death Penalty Information Center’s survey found only nine states carried out executions in 2012 – the fewest number of states to do so in 20 years. More than half of the states (29) now either have no death penalty or have not carried out an execution in five years.

The 43 executions carried out in the United States in 2012 was 56 percent less than the peak in 1999, and equal to last year’s total. The number of new death sentences in 2012 was the second-lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976: 80 people were sentenced to death in 2012, representing a 74 percent decline since the 315 sentences rendered in 1996.

Many death penalty states with histories of high use had no new death sentences or no executions in 2012; for example, there were none in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, the latter of which is second only to Texas in total executions since 1976,

“Capital punishment is becoming marginalized and meaningless in most of the country,” Richard Dieter, DPIC’s executive director and the report’s author, said in a news release. “In 2012, fewer states have the death penalty, fewer carried out executions, and death sentences and executions were clustered in a small number of states. It is very likely that more states will take up the question of death penalty repeal in the years ahead.”

California’s Proposition 34, which would’ve abolished the state’s death penalty and replaced it with life in prison without possibility of parole, won the support of only 48 percent of voters in November’s election. Elsewhere, Connecticut this year became the 17th state to repeal its death penalty.


Latest poll numbers on November ballot measures

Labor Day usually marks the start of the traditional campaign season, when voters start tuning in more earnestly about the issues and candidates on November’s ballot. With that in mind, here are the latest polling numbers from the California Business Roundtable’s weekly survey:

Prop. 30 (Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase) – 54.4 % yes, 40.5 % no

Prop. 31 (two-year budget cycle, etc.) – 40.9 % yes, 36.2 % no

Prop. 32 (bans political contributions by payroll deduction) – 57.3 % yes, 33 % no

Prop. 33 (auto insurance) – 56.5 % yes, 31.8 % no

Prop. 34 (death penalty repeal) – 40.1 % yes, 49.5 % no

Prop. 35 (human trafficking) – 82.2 % yes, 10.8 % no

Prop. 36 (three strikes sentencing reform) – 74.1 % yes, 17.8 % no

Prop. 37 (labeling of GMO foods) – 65.4 % yes, 23.4 % no

Prop. 38 (Molly Munger’s tax increase) – 39.6 % yes, 49.4 % no

Prop. 39 (corporate tax loophole) – 59.2 % yes, 28.9 % no

Prop. 40 (state Senate redistricting) – 47.8 % yes, 25 % no

A lot of money will be spent in the next two months to move these numbers, so don’t read too much into them now. That said, a few thoughts:

    Voter support for any measure often declines as Election Day nears, so anything already polling under 60 percent “yes” has a tough road ahead.
    Jerry Brown’s tax measure is looking a lot stronger than Molly Munger’s, but neither looks like a powerhouse.
    California voters appear ready to save some prison-budget money by putting fewer people away for life (by requiring that a “third strike” be a serious or violent felony), but not by abolishing the astonishingly costly capital punishment process.
    Watch for an extremely well-funded ad blitz from the food industry to knock down Prop. 37’s numbers as soon as possible.

    Nobody’s campaigning for Prop. 40, yet it still has more support than opposition; go figure. It won’t for long.
    In my GOP-convention-inspired-haze, I forgot that a “no” vote on Prop. 40 supports killing the newly drawn district lines, so a “yes” vote preserves the status quo. Never mind, then.

Death penalty abolition measure cleared by AG

The state Attorney General’s office has cleared for petition circulation a proposed ballot initiative that would abolish California’s death penalty, replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Here’s the AG’s title and summary, released yesterday:

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Repeals death penalty as maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to persons already sentenced to death. Requires persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them. Creates $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Net savings to the state and counties that could amount to the high tens of millions of dollars annually on a statewide basis due to the elimination of the death penalty. One-time state costs totaling $100 million from 2012-13 through 2015-16 to provide funding to local law enforcement agencies. (11-0035.)

The proponents have until March 19 to gather the valid signatures of at least 504,760 registered California voters in order to put this initiative on the November 2012 ballot.

This is the measure that popped up after state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, withdrew her similar bill in August, saying she couldn’t find the legislative votes to move it forward.

The California Taxpayers for Justice committee backing this “Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement (SAFE) for California Act” will roll out its petition signature gathering drive next week with press conferences Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego featuring “law enforcement leaders, murder victim family members, exonerated persons and notable campaign supporters.”

Among those speaking Tuesday in San Francisco will be 8th District Supervisor Scott Weiner; Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin State Prison and now Death Penalty Focus’s executive director and this initiative’s proponent; Maurice Caldwell, released in March after serving 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit; Deldelp Medina, whose aunt was murdered by her first cousin; and Lorrain Taylor of Oakland, founder of 1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence and mother of twins Albade and Obadiah who were gunned down in 2000 at age 22 in a still-unsolved case.

And speakers in San Jose on Thursday will include SAFE California statewide campaign manager Natasha Minsker, who directs the ACLU of Northern California’s death penalty policy; retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell; John Starbuck, both the grandson and grandfather of murder victims, in separate cases; retired police officer Steven Fajardo; and Mary-Kay Raftery of San Jose, mother of a murdered law enforcement officer.

Hancock’s bill had been opposed by groups including Crime Victims United of California and the California District Attorneys Association; they and others almost certainly will oppose this proposed initiative, too.

A Field Poll released late last month found 68 percent of voters favor retaining the death penalty for serious crimes, 27 percent favor abolishing it, and 5 percent have no opinion. However, the poll also found more voters now prefer life in prison without the possibility of parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of first degree murder by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin. The poll had a 3.2-percentage-point margin of error.