California Death Penalty Hangs On (Barely)

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio


By a narrow 52.7%-47.3% margin, California voters have chosen to retain their state’s death penalty.  This represents a 19% decline in support for capital punishment from the 1978 referendum that enacted the current death penalty law. At that time 71% voted for the death penalty.

The need to end the killing of prisoners and redirect resources in a more useful way (like investigating the 46% of murders that go unsolved in California each year) brought together a wide array of advocates, from human rights and civil liberties groups like Amnesty International and the ACLU, to murder victim family members, to death row exonerees, to a former warden of San Quentin and former top proponents of the 1978 ballot initiative.

As Rose Seward, who survived an attack from a serial killer who killed 5 other women, wrote just two days before the vote: “How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves?

We can’t.  That’s why support for capital punishment has declined so significantly in California.

This diminishing enthusiasm for executions, though not quite enough to pass Prop 34, is reflective of the national trend away from the death penalty. Growing moral qualms about the practice of killing prisoners, combined with frustrations over costs and worries that errors could lead to executing the innocent, are spreading across the country.

Five states in 5 years have abandoned capital punishment, and death sentences have dropped precipitously to their lowest totals since the 1970s. Executions are not likely to resume anytime soon in California, and more states are likely to repeal their death penalty laws in 2013 and beyond.

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15 thoughts on “California Death Penalty Hangs On (Barely)

  1. Your story exactly reports the reality here in California: we just have a bit more educating to do. On a personal level, since the execution of Robert Alton Harris in 1992 (California’s first since 1967), I have worn black in resistance to the death penalty, and this I pledge to continue as our struggle toward abolition proceeds with renewed resolve.

  2. death penalty in a modern world wastes a lot more money than people realize. its not worth it, we can use the money to make the next generation smarter, educate, and dont kill to show killing is wrong.killing doesnt make the pain go away for victims families, they are often suprised that this brings no closure.

  3. A good way to educate is showing and discussing films. There are many very good ones: Twelve Angry men, Dancing in the Dark, Intolerance (Grifith), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean , The Process of Joan D Arc, and many others. Do it especially with young people, who need to think and judge their own lives and the lives of others from a Human Rights' perspective.

  4. While this news is undoubtedly disappointing, it is important to bear in mind that this initiative was seen as a dead cert failure only a few weeks ago with 68% having voiced their support for CP as last year. The fact that the proposition was defeated by less than 6 percentage points suggests to me that abolition in California is just a matter of time especially with the US as a whole taking an increasingly liberal direction and the likelihood of further repeals over the coming years. While I am incredibly disappointed especially for the families of the victims of the 46% unsolved homicides who are yet to see any form of justice and for those worried about the prospect of wrongful convictions, I think our hopes now rest with Montana, Kansas, Oregon, New Hampshire, Maryland and perhaps Washington. Hopefully, this result will not deter California abolitionists at the next ballot.

  5. My wife and i were very disappointed that Prop 34 did not pass. But we hope that enough residents of Calif will realize in the future that this kind of 'justice' is inhumane, very expensive, and occasionally tragically wrong when the evidence proves that the conviction was wrong in the first place.

    KEEP UP YOUR EFFORTS toward abolishing the death penalty!! We will support you.

  6. Why should we abolish the DP? What are your reasons? Mercy and compassion? I show murderers the same mercy they showed their victims. We're supposed to be better than them maybe? You may be better than them, but I'm not. The only difference between them and me is I can control myself and obey the law and they can't. Also, if I was ever convicted of murder, I would rather be put to death than live in a cage like an animal. I was an employee in a prison for two years. I wouldn't want to be an inmate there for the rest of my life for anything. Better to get it over with quick and clean.

    • Being on death row is never "over with" – it can go on for years of appeals and painful waiting. You said it yourself – being in prison is punishment enough. The cost is astronomical. It is fallible and kills the innocent, It does not help tackle crime. It should be abolished.

  7. Dan – As a former staunch DP supporter, I will say that if there was any way of guaranteeing actual guilt in all cases, enabling adequate legal representation and ensuring consistency of death sentences across the board irrespective of socio-economic, mental health and racial disparities, I would in all probability support the death penalty. I do not sympathise with ruthless killers and I wholeheartedly empathize with the families of those killed by some of California's worst DR inmates. But the fact is we can't. I probably do not need to say that since 1973, 141 people have been released from our death rows, which is an extortionate number and a reflection of our judicial system. What's more, I am wholly convinced that at least one individual has been wrongly executed possibly this century, that is a horrific indictment of our judicial system. I am not sure how you might feel on this issue, but I personally consider the wrongful execution of an innocent to be just as heinous as the crime of murder – I cannot imagine what either victim in any of those two situations would endure in such circumstances. So, if that means, sentencing all inmates to LWOP, thereby allowing some culpable criminals to live in the hope of ensuring that no innocent is executed then I am afraid that is my stance. For as long as it remains, mistakes can and will be made. I am not stating that there are innocents on California's DR but the fact is, we just don't know. And, what about the victims of the 46% unsolved homicides? As a result of this ballot, the families of those victims will continue to go without any form of justice, and there will in all likelihood be no executions until at least 2013/14. California prisons are some of the harshest in the western world. Imprisoning inmates for LWOP and throwing away the key would punish the worst and allow for the possibility of releasing an innocent should the need arise. Why risk making an irreversible fatal mistake?

  8. As our newly re-elected President has said, we must move forward in our growing and evolving democracy. The death penalty is nothing more than state sanctioned revenge. It does not deter violent crimes. It does not offer closure to the victim's family. It is immoral. It is costing the state millions and millions of dollars, money which should be used educating our children and providing better schools and health care for the poor. We can do better as the leading democracy of the 21st Century. All other developed democracies in the world do not have a death penalty. The United States alone with Iran and China are the only countries I recall now that still sanction this barbaric punishment. It is only a matter of time (hopefully sooner than later) before California joins other enlightened states of our Union in cutting the yoke of this ugly legacy.

  9. teens should be required the watch the green mile, to show how cruel, and faulty our justice systems are in some states. teach our youth, they will later be the citizens making, aboloshing or voting against such laws.

  10. »Poetic Parloir«
    “How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves?” quotations, from one who survived a cold blooded serial killer.

    Those are words reflecting my own thinking as a philosopher – lost in an ´impasse´ of logic – I grapple the equation: “how can one inhumane crime-committed-act of violence justify another?”

    Inform and challenge yourself about the death penalty …

    »In Violence of Technique – the Electric Chair«

    Le Berthélaine – Danish artist, writer and critic

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