California Death Penalty Foes Focus on Cost of Executions

Advocates of a ballot measure to ban the death penalty in California are focusing their effort on a financial argument rather than just a moral one: that capital punishment has become too costly for the deficit-ridden state.

The state with the most prisoners on death row spent $4 billion since 1978 prosecuting capital cases, confining the condemned and fighting court appeals, executing just 13 in the period while 900 were convicted, according to a study in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review cited by proponents including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Polls show voters are split on Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty and change the maximum criminal punishment to life without parole. The measure on next month’s ballot would also apply retroactively, meaning those already on death row would have their sentences commuted to life. California would join 17 states that abolished the death penalty since 2007, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

“Opinions on the death penalty are fairly locked in,” said David Kanevsky, research director at American Viewpoint, which has conducted polls on behalf of the Republican National Committee. “If this initiative is tied, it’s likely to lose as undecideds generally break to the ‘no’ side and the fiscal argument does not move Republicans on the death penalty, as it moves voters on other initiatives.”

Opponents of the measure include Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, became a national symbol of missing children when she was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1993. Her killer is one of more than 700 inmates awaiting execution at San Quentin prison near San Francisco.

‘Demeans My Daughter’

“The jury was very clear back in 1996 saying that for the crime Richard Allen Davis committed against my daughter, he deserved to be executed,” Marc Klaas said in a telephone interview. “To think that anybody would be advocating on his behalf, trying to save his life, absolutely appalls me at every level. It demeans my daughter. It diminishes my daughter in the eyes of justice.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, which suspended capital punishment as unconstitutional in 1972, allowed its resumption in 1976. More than two-thirds of California voters approved reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978.

Lethal Injection

The state hasn’t conducted executions since 2006, when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose blocked the execution of Michael Morales, convicted of rape and murder in 1983. Fogel said the procedure, using lethal injection, was unconstitutionally cruel. The last to die was Clarence Ray Allen, who was 76 when he was executed for three murders.

Under existing state law, death penalty verdicts are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court, a move known as a direct appeal. Death penalty cases almost always result in extensive habeas corpus appeals in which an inmate asks for his or her conviction to be reviewed, delaying the sentence for decades.

“I oversaw four executions at San Quentin,” said Jeanne Woodford, who was warden from 1999 to 2004 and is the official proponent of the measure. “I can tell you as a law-enforcement officer with 34 years of experience, those executions did not make any one of us safer. What they did do was consume millions of dollars in resources that would be better spent on solving crime.”

Voters Split

A survey by the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, released Sept. 25, showed 42 percent of likely voters would end the death penalty and 45 percent would keep it. The difference was within the margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released Sept. 30 found 38 percent would eliminate capital punishment, while 51 percent supported it. The margin for error was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

“It’s so expensive because we never conclude anything, they just keep dragging on and on on,” said Kermit Alexander, a former professional football player for the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams whose mother, sister and two nephews were shot to death in south-central Los Angeles during a home invasion by gang members. The killer, Tiequon Cox, has been on death row for 26 years.

“It’s an open sore,” Alexander said. “We’ve lost our loved ones and we depend upon the state to do good by us, but they don’t seem to, over and over and over again. Once the trial is over, it seems there are no more rights for the victims. It’s all about the criminal.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE