Death Penalty


Poll: Death Penalty Repeal Gains Ground

The ballot measure to repeal California’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole appears to be gaining ground, according to the latest Field Poll.

For the first time, supporters of Proposition 34 outnumber opponents, 45 percent to 38 percent.

But a fairly large portion, 17 percent, are undecided.

Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo says voters seem persuaded by the argument that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison.

“Back in 1989, voters by a 2-1 margin felt that it was cheaper to implement the death penalty than to house somebody in prison for life,” he said. “Now, more voters — by a 5-3 margin — think its actually cheaper to house prisoners for life.”

The Field Poll shows support is strongest in the Bay Area.

More coverage on Proposition 34 here.

Does The Death Penalty Provide ‘Closure’ to Victim’s Families? Three Perspectives

This coming election Californians will decide on Proposition 34, which would outlaw the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would also direct $30 million a year for three years to investigate unsolved rape and murder cases.

San Quentin Prison has housed California's only death row for male inmates since 1937. (Michael Glogowski-Walldorf: Flickr)

San Quentin Prison has housed California's only death row for male inmates since 1937. (Michael Glogowski-Walldorf: Flickr)

The measure is the latest chapter in a seesaw legal and political dispute over capital punishment that stretches back 50 years in California.

But setting aside the main argument of the “Yes on 34” camp, that the billions of dollars spent on the death penalty could better be used to solve crimes; and “No on 34” backers, that the death penalty process could be made more efficient and cheaper, there’s another issue that often comes up in the overall debate.

Many supporters of the death penalty say it is the only fair societal consequence for the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and that it gives victims’ families a sense of closure. Scott Shafer has been following this question around the death penalty for more than a dozen years, and he frequently addresses the question of closure in his reporting. Continue reading

Cooley, Gascon Make Their Case For, Against the Death Penalty

Lethal injection table at San Quentin's execution chamber. (Scott Shafer: KQED)

Lethal injection table at San Quentin's execution chamber. (Scott Shafer: KQED)

If voters approve Proposition 34 this November, it would mark the end of capital punishment in California. It would also mean that some notorious killers such as the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, and Richard Allen Davis, the killer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas,  would see their sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The California Report’s Scott Shafer recently sat down with two prominent district attorneys on opposite sides of the issue: San Francisco’s George Gascon and Steve Cooley from Los Angeles.

Here is an edited transcript of Shafer’s conversation with the two law enforcement officials, starting with Steve Cooley discussing his view that execution is an appropriate sentence for the people on death row:

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley: There are some offenses that demand the ultimate sentence. We’ve got individuals down in Los Angeles — for example, the Grim Sleeper case which is pending — this gentleman killed 23 young women, in the most cruel, inhumane way. Life without possibility of parole is not the appropriate sentence for somebody who slaughters so many of his fellow citizens. Cop killers, baby killers, serial killers — they deserve the death penalty. In my county, we only seek the death penalty in 11 percent of the special-circumstance cases, and they are well-selected and well-deserving of the death penalty. Continue reading

Californians Again Consider the Death Penalty, This Time in Proposition 34

San Quentin Prison has housed California's only death row for male inmates since 1937. (Michael Glogowski-Walldorf: Flickr)

San Quentin Prison has housed California's only death row for male inmates since 1937. (Michael Glogowski-Walldorf: Flickr)

In February of 1960, Gov. Pat Brown had a tough decision to make. His office was being flooded by clemency appeals for death row inmate Carryl Chessman. Convicted of kidnapping, robbery and rape, Chessman maintained his innocence.

“Well I don’t know if I ever had hope,” Chessman said in an interview then. “It’s like a soldier out in the field, the battlefield. I don’t know if he has hope or not; he just keeps slogging forward as much as possible and then waits for the results.”

Letters and calls poured into the governor’s office on Chessman’s behalf. As Pat Brown recalled in a 1986 KQED documentary, the most urgent appeal to stop the execution came from his own family.

“My son asked me to do it and said ‘Dad, this man didn’t kill anybody. I think you should commute it to life imprisonment,'” Brown said.

In 1972 the California Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. For the next 20 years, capital punishment bounced back and forth, with voters restoring it and then the courts striking it down.

His son Jerry Brown, who had been studying for the priesthood, apparently made a persuasive case. “I says ‘I’ll do it,'” Brown said. “And I did it. And they damn near executed me!”

The governor’s 60-day reprieve didn’t save Chessman, who died in the San Quentin gas chamber two months later. But his case helped ignite international opposition to capital punishment. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

Proposition 34: Should California Overturn the Death Penalty?

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

San Quentin's lethal injection room. (Photo: Scott Shafer, KQED)

The death penalty is on the ballot in California in November, in the form of Proposition 34.  While death penalty discussions usually involve the topic of morality, there is little of that in the proposition’s language. Instead, Prop. 34 focuses on money. Specifically, what would be saved by abolishing the death penalty — billions of dollars, according to Jeanne Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. She explained the number on KQED’s Forum this morning.

The 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. Continue reading

Californians to Have Say on Death Penalty

On a recent afternoon outside a San Francisco grocery store, paid campaign workers are on the hunt for voter signatures.

Among the dozens of ballot measures now gathering signatures in California — is one seeking to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life sentences without the possibility of parole.
It’s chief proponent is Jeanne Woodford.

“I’m arguing for ending the death penalty because it doesn’t serve us” says Woodford. “It’s not a public safety tool.”

You might say Woodford is an unlikely opponent of the death penalty. As warden of San Quentin Prison, she presided over four executions.

“I tell people at the end of every execution someone on my staff would ask ‘Did we make the world safer tonight?’ And we all knew the answer was no,” said Woodford.

Today, Woodford is director of Death Penalty Focus, a non-profit fighting capital punishment. Woodford thinks deliberately killing inmates is immoral. But her main arguments against it: The death penalty doesn’t deter crime, it costs too much and it doesn’t help victims’ families move beyond their horrible loss.
Continue reading