Poll: Overwhelming Opposition From GOP Voters Puts Death Penalty Repeal in Doubt

San Quentin's death penalty chamber. (Photo: Scott Shafer, KQED)

San Quentin's death penalty chamber. (Photo: Scott Shafer, KQED)

by Scott Shafer, Lisa Aliferis, Jon Brooks

A new Field Poll finds voters closely divided on Proposition 34, the measure that would end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison.

Supporters of Prop. 34 say California’s death penalty is broken and can’t be fixed. Besides, they add, all those legal appeals are wasting taxpayer dollars.

In the latest Field Poll [PDF] released Tuesday, 42 percent of likely voters agree with ending executions. But slightly more — 45 percent — say “no” — keep things just the way they are. Thirteen percent are undecided. The margin of error is 4.3 percent.

The poll showed a sharp divide among registered Democrats and Independents versus Republicans on the issue. Democrats support the measure 50-37 percent, and no-party-preference or other voters favor it 54-33. But opposition by Republicans is at a whopping 65-23 percent.

Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said that support for replacing the death penalty with life in prison has been gaining ground in recent years.

“I think that gives the “Yes on 34″ side a chance,” he said. “But it’s starting off below 50 percent, and the history of our poll suggests that is an ominous place to start.”

Democrats support the measure 50-37 percent, and no-party-preference or other voters favor it 54-33. But opposition by Republicans is at a whopping 65-23 percent.

Although the measure is failing to win majority support, backers do seem to have a financial advantage. Proponents of Prop. 34 have vastly outraised opponents, meaning voters will likely start seeing advertisements in favor of the measure.

The Field Poll samples likely voters. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle took a look at people we don’t usually hear from in this debate, specifically, the 725 inmates on death row, who of course can’t vote. The Chronicle cites evidence that most of them are opposed to overturning the death penalty.

From the Chronicle:

It’s not that they want to die, attorney Robert Bryan said. They just want to hang on to the possibility of proving that they’re innocent, or at least that they were wrongly convicted. That would require state funding for lawyers and investigators – funding that Proposition 34 would eliminate for many Death Row inmates after the first round of appeals.

Bryan has represented several condemned prisoners in California as well as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical activist and commentator whose death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman was recently reduced to life in prison. The attorney said California inmates have told him they’d prefer the current law, with its prospect of lethal injection, to one that would reduce their appellate rights.

“Many of them say, ‘I’d rather gamble and have the death penalty dangling there but be able to fight to right a wrong,’ ” Bryan said.

Or, as Death Row inmate Correll Thomas put it in a recent newspaper essay, if Prop. 34 passes, “the courthouse doors will be slammed forever.”

Earlier this year, KQED’s Scott Shafer interviewed Mark Klaas. Klaas became a victims’ advocate after his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis in 1993. He is strongly opposed to repealing the death penalty:

SCOTT SHAFER: You and your family suffered a tremendous loss with the death of your daughter Polly. Richard Allen Davis has been on death row for sometime now. How would this law, if it were to pass, affect him, and what are your thoughts about that?

MARK KLAAS: There are many reasons I support the death penalty. But I can tell you, Richard Allen Davis told a psychiatrist that he spends his time in prison contemplating victims of his past crimes as he masturbates at least twice daily. I believe Polly and all the other girls and people he victimized through his long criminal history deserve peace of mind. And I believe they can’t get peace of mind until justice is administered, and in this case it’s the death penalty.

SHAFER: One of the arguments for the death penalty is that it brings closure to families of crimes. But Richard Allen Davis has been on death row since 1996…

KLASS: I believe this execution would bring closure to my daughter. She is the one that he contemplates as he acts out in his prison cell. It’s not going to change my life one way or the other. But I don’t invest a lot of time or energy in thinking about Richard Allen Davis. He’s dominated my family’s life quite enough as it is. I’m content to see him at least be on death row and know that at some point he may have to face that final judgment.

SHAFER: What have other people who have witnessed the execution of a perpetrator of a crime against a family member told you? Did it make a difference?

KLASS: It does make a difference. It’s about carrying out the law. It’s about the final judgment. Those individuals I’ve talked to -– family members who have witnessed executions — are grateful for the experience, sad that it had to come to that, but satisfied that justice has been fulfilled.

Those in favor of overturning the death penalty say that the problem is that it simply costs too much money, and that justice would be better served by converting death penalty sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford explained on KQED’s Forum recently, billions of dollars could be saved.

“[That] figure [PDF] actually came from Justice Alarcon, who is the 9th circuit court judge,” she said, further explaining that Alarcon supports the death penalty and his then-law clerk Paula Mitchell, who co-wrote the analysis, does not. They studied the issues for five years, Woodford said. “They concluded that we have spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, and if we continue with the death penalty we will spend up to another $7 billion on the death penalty by 2050.”

In addition, Woodford pointed to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office report which estimates savings of $130 million annually within a few years of passage of Proposition 34 — with the caveat that its estimate could vary by tens of millions of dollars.

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