For one of the items on this year’s ballot, you need to go back to 1978. In that year, California voters approved Proposition 7, which expanded the death penalty in California. This November Californians will vote on Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sacramento attorney Don Heller wrote Prop. 7 at the request of then-State Senator John Briggs.
“I wrote it with the intent of writing a perfect legal document. Which I did! It was well crafted. It met all the constitutional standards, and it’s never been overturned in any aspects by the U.S. Supreme Court.” Heller says.
Jerry Brown was governor at the time, and heinous crime sprees like the Manson killings and two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford were still fresh in voters’ minds. Heller remembers California as a western state with a taste for frontier justice. Proposition 7 got more than 71 percent of the vote.
“It was a culture of ‘hanging ‘em high from the big oak tree,’” Heller recalls. “It was a western mentality of free thinkers and speedy punishment for criminal behavior.”
But executions in California have been anything but speedy. Since Prop. 7 passed, California has executed just 13 men and the death row population has grown from zero to more than 700. The average time between conviction and execution is nearly 18 years.
Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento says his group has pushed time and again to reduce that wait by streamlining legal appeals.
“If the legislature would do its job and pass the reforms correctly — and we’ve had bills in committee many, many times and they’ve always been killed in committee — we could get this done,” Scheidegger says.
Scheidegger strongly opposes Prop. 34, saying simply the inmates on death row deserve to die.
“These are crimes far worse than the typical murder,” he says. “These are cases of serial rape and torture, people torturing and murdering children, and life in prison without parole simply isn’t a sufficient punishment.”
But Don Heller kept an eye on the law as it was implemented. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“One of the things I noticed immediately, which surprised me, was that the quality of lawyers representing defendants in death penalty cases was suboptimal,” Heller says.
Heller calls himself a conservative Republican. But he now believes his ballot measure was “a colossal mistake” that needs to be changed. He’s supporting Proposition 34.
“I’m a believer in law and order. I think that’s the primary objective of government — is protecting society. But I don’t believe capital punishment works. And if it doesn’t work, change it,” Heller says.
Governor Jerry Brown won’t say — not yet anyway — whether he supports Prop. 34. But last year he cancelled plans for a new death row at San Quentin Prison. He said the state cannot afford it.
Fighting to End an Execution Law They Once Championed (New York Times)