California Votes to End Death Penalty

Letal Injection Table –

Last week, the attorney for convicted murderer Scott Peterson filed a thick packet of legal briefs calling for an appeal of his death sentence. For many, the heinous killing of Peterson’s wife Laci and unborn child makes him a poster child for the death penalty. Yet Peterson’s appeal, presumably the first of what will be many, could also be seen as the poster child against the death penalty.

Peterson’s lawyer argues, “The case against Mr. Peterson was anything but overwhelming …There were no eyewitnesses, no confessions, no admissions and scant physical evidence connected him to the crime.” Peterson’s attorney went on to allege incorrect rulings, juror misconduct, and a host of other errors in Peterson’s case which preventing his client from getting a fair trial.

This November, the Saving, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, or SAFE California Act, will appear on the ballot as a state measure (under the title Death Penalty Repeal). The official language of the bill states:

“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.”

A summary of the estimated fiscal impact of the bill was prepared by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Director of Finance. According to the ballot: “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.”

One of the state’s leading advocates for the repeal of the death penalty is the former warden of San Quentin and former Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Jeanne Woodford. Woodford is now the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus and, along with the ACLU, have led the way in getting the SAFE California Act on the ballot.

Backers of the measure have argued the total saving to the state could actually add up to $1billion over the next five years. Along with the costs associated with running the nation’s largest Death Row, the state will save hundreds of millions of dollars on defense lawyers, prosecutors, and other courtroom expenses involving the death penalty. “Our system is broken, expensive, and it always will carry the grave risk of a mistake,” said Woodford in a recent press statement.

It is that grave risk of mistake that often looms in the back of many of the advocates for ending the death penalty. The non-profit organization the Innocence Project has now help exonerate, using DNA testing and other top forensic methods, 292 convicted men, including 17 men sentenced to death. Many believe Texas has recently put to death several innocent men, including the cases of Carlos De Luna and Cameron Todd Willingham.

According to the Innocence Project, “The common themes that run though these cases – from global problems like poverty and racial issues to the criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel – cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system”.

Nonetheless, there are also outspoken opponents for ending the death penalty in California. Former Sacramento U.S Attorney and chairman of the Californians for Justice and Public Safety, McGregor Scott, argues the problem with the death penalty is not the law but rather the lawyers filing “frivolous appeals”.  In a statement, released immediately after the SAFE California Act was approved for the ballot, Scott writes:

“On behalf of crime victims and their loved ones who have suffered at the hands of California’s most violent criminals, we are disappointed that the ACLU and their allies would seek to score political points in their continued efforts to override the will of the people and repeal the death penalty.

Make no mistake; Californians are smart. They know the ACLU is the reason why California’s capital punishment system is costly and broken. Frivolous appeals, endless delays and the ongoing re-victimization of California is their status quo. Now they think they can fool voters by promoting an initiative that would reward cop-killers and child-murders under the guise of alleged cost savings. Voters know better. They oppose the ACLU, support the death penalty and will not be fooled by hollow promises and political rhetoric.

California’s public safety leaders will never forget crime victims or dishonor their memory. We will continue waiting for – and demanding – justice”.

Last month, Californian’s for Justice and Public Safety filed a lawsuit with the state Court of Appeals calling for the resumption of executions in California.  The suit argues that since the current three-drug method has been caught up in litigation and has caused many delays in executions, California should immediately move to a one-drug method, similar to that used in Ohio.

In light of the fact that the Innocence Project has exonerated 292 innocent people and many legal scholars believe Texas, amongst other states, have recently put to death innocent men, McGregor Scott’s recent lawsuit appears to many as an overzealous rush to put people to death. Currently, California has 725 inmates on Death Row. Do to the litigation surrounding the three-drug method and other appeals, California has not put anyone to death since 2006.

This November, California’s will have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to continue to pay 100’s of millions of dollars on a broken criminal justice system, which has been shown over and over again to be marked by mistakes, or they can vote yes on the Death Penalty Repeal initiative found on their ballots.


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