As death penalty opponents work to get a ballot measure before California voters next fall to abolish capital punishment, a new Field Poll indicates the initiative would be a tough sell.
More than two-thirds of state voters 68 percent favor keeping the death penalty, the poll found, with 27 percent favoring abolition and 5 percent expressing no opinion.
"We've polled on this for 55 years," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "It's changed a little here and there, but just removing the death penalty as a potential punishment is opposed. That's pretty clear."
Death penalty opponents launched an effort in August to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, something they said would save the state millions of dollars each year.
On that point, the poll released today found that more voters 48 percent now support imposing a life-without-parole sentence for first-degree murderers than those who favor the death penalty 40 percent in such cases.
"I think what the public had in mind is the use of the death penalty for very heinous crimes, like multiple cop killings or terrorists," DiCamillo said.
But, he added, the poll makes it clear that "the public wants to maintain (capital punishment) as a potential form of punishment."
The Field Poll has consistently found over the years that a majority in the state want the death penalty to remain law.
Despite that, those in favor of abolishing it say they believe they can convince voters that the death penalty is too costly and should be replaced with a sentence that guarantees a prisoner will remain incarcerated for life.
"I think there's a decent chance," said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the voter-approved measure that reinstated the death penalty in California in 1976 and who now supports abolishing it.
In announcing their ballot measure campaign in August, opponents of capital punishment said California spends $184 million annually on the death penalty.
But crime-victim advocate Harriet Salarno scoffed at the argument that the death penalty is too costly, saying the costs are increased by opponents pushing for repeated legal appeals.
She added that the latest poll results simply confirm what California voters have supported for years.