To Kill or not to Kill? California’s Death Penalty Debacle

Original video on California's death penalty

For the first time in nearly 35 years, California voters will decide on the fate of the state’s death penalty law. Proposition 34, on this November’s ballot, proposes a full repeal of the law, prohibiting the use of capital punishment. If passed, the measure would convert the sentences of all current death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Not surprisingly, Prop 34 is among the most emotionally-charged issues on this year’s ballot, marking yet another chapter in California’s ongoing, soul-searching debate on justice and punishment. Filmmaker Jazmin Jones examines the emotional complexity and widely conflicting political views of an issue that has long divided Californians.

California has had a really tough time making up its mind about the death penalty. In 1872, the state authorized capital punishment in its penal code (until then, executions were generally conducted by county sheriffs). 23 years later, a guy named Jose Gabriel, convicted of murdering an elderly couple, was hung inside San Quentin Prison. That marked California’s first official execution at the hands of the state.

For the next 75-odd years, California executed nearly 500 inmates, four of them women.

And then things got really confusing.

In early 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s death penalty law constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the state’s constitution. But just nine months later, California voters approved a ballot initiative that amended the constitution to make capital punishment permissible.  A year later, the state passed legislation that actually made the death penalty mandatory for certain crimes. But once again, the state Supreme Court struck back, ruling that law unconstitutional as well.

Fast forward six years. In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 7 by a whopping 70 percent. The initiative not only reinstated the state’s death penalty, but also broadened the list of circumstances under which a convicted prisoner could receive a death sentence. It also increased prison terms for first and second degree murder.

And its this law that currently stands in California.

Over the last 34 years, the state has executed 13 prisoners (a 14th was convicted in California but executed in Missouri). The last execution – of Clarence Ray Allen – was back in January 2006. Currently 725 prisoners live on California’s death row .

Interestingly, many of Prop 34’s strongest advocates – including Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin Prison, and Ron Briggs, the son of the state senator who led the effort to get the death penalty reinstated in 1978  – argue for repealing the death penalty largely on economic – not moral –  grounds.They contend that the current system is horribly inefficient and a financial burden to the already cash-strapped state. Due to the number of legal appeals and required long-term special supervision for death row inmates, the financial costs of executing a prisoner far outweigh that of life imprisonment.  Repealing the death penalty would save the state an estimated $100 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But supporters of the death penalty – those in opposition to Prop 34 – argue that criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes deserve to be put to death. The death penalty deters future crime, many argue, and for the families and friends of victims, it is the only way that justice is truly served.

For more perspectives on this issue, listen to the following KQED and NPR radio stories. Also, read a list of strong arguments for and against the death penalty at procon.org.

About the filmmaker

Jazmin Jones is a filmmaker and graduate of the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Digital Pathways Program. She is currently a student at City College of San Francisco.

 

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