Californians may vote on death penalty in November

03/02/2012 12:00 AM

03/04/2012 1:16 PM

Douglas Scott Mickey crept into the rural Placer County home of Eric Lee Hanson and Catherine Blount after midnight on Sept. 29, 1980.

Angry over a drug dispute he had with Hanson and looking for money, Mickey bludgeoned the sleeping 29-year-old man with a baseball bat and slit his throat ear to ear. He then turned his attention to Blount, 29, stabbing her seven times in the chest.

Convicted of both killings, Mickey has been on San Quentin's death row since 1983, fighting his case through the courts.

There is little chance that he will face lethal injection any time soon. Court battles have brought executions in California to a halt, and on Thursday a group of death penalty opponents said they had passed a milestone toward abolishing capital punishment in the state altogether.

The SAFE California Campaign said it has collected about 800,000 signatures to get a measure on the November ballot to transfer the sentences of death-penalty inmates to life without the possibility of parole.

The campaign, whose name stands for "Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement," needed to turn in slightly more than 504,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office. If approved for the ballot, the measure would mark the first time since Californians approved the death penalty in 1978 that state voters have an opportunity to weigh in on the practice.

Only one other state – Oregon – has set aside capital punishment by a vote of the people, though it was reinstated in 1978. Sixteen other states have done away with it through legislation or the courts.

California's situation is different from most states' because of the sheer size of its death row – 725 inmates and counting – and the cost of maintaining it.

Advocates for abolishing the state's death penalty – a coalition of the American Civil Liberties Union, lawyers, crime victims and law enforcement officials – will argue it's a pocketbook issue: They estimate that the death penalty costs the state $137 million a year because of the time-consuming court appeals that ensue and requirements for maintaining prisoners on death row.

Given the lengthy appeals process, only 13 men have been executed since capital punishment was restored in California. The average time they spent on death row before execution was 17.5 years, state prison officials say.

"It doesn't work, and it costs a fortune," said Don Heller, a Sacramento defense attorney who wrote the 1978 death penalty initiative but has since decided it was a mistake.

The coalition is banking on people such as Heller and other law-enforcement officials – former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw four executions, is the public face of the effort – to convince voters that getting rid of the death penalty is a law-and-order measure.

They contend it would shift taxpayer money away from court appeals to cops on the street. "It doesn't make any sense to keep a hotel at San Quentin," Heller said.

They face numerous opponents who say the effort would not save California a dime but would make the state more dangerous.

"California's death penalty is reserved for the worst and most violent of offenders," Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully said in a statement Thursday. "Over 725 juries across this state have made the decision that these criminals rightfully deserve this sentence."

Scully said the death penalty does not need to be scrapped to work properly.

Another death penalty proponent agreed, saying many of the legal issues that have delayed executions in the state have been addressed by the federal courts and that the last major impediment is the battle over lethal-injection procedures used by the state.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said settling that issue could help executions resume.

"The opposition makes much of the fact that only 13 death sentences have been carried out, but about that many have reached the end of the pipeline and are now ready to be carried out, blocked only by the unnecessary and pointless lethal injection litigation," he wrote in an email.

Other states have changed procedures and moved forward with executions, but California has not put anyone to death since 2006 because of the legal battle.

Scheidegger added that the cost savings cited by death penalty opponents are inaccurate.

"I hope the voters reject it," he said, noting that the costs of caring for death-penalty inmates for the rest of their lives "escalate dramatically with age."

A Field Poll issued in September found most Californians – 68 percent – still support capital punishment.

But Natasha Minsker, the ACLU's death penalty policy director, noted that the poll also found that if voters were given the option of choosing between the death penalty and life without parole for offenders, the result was 48 percent in favor of life to 40 percent for capital punishment.

The campaign has raised about $1.5 million for the petition drive, tapping into a network of ACLU chapters, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and film industry executives. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings gave $125,000, as did Google executive Robert Alan Eustace, and Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty group, contributed $75,000.

The largest single contribution came from Chicago investor and Hyatt hotel heir Nicholas Pritzker, who gave $500,000.

Minsker said supporters expect to be able to draw on a sufficient number of contributors to run a strong campaign heading into November.

Opponents are expected to fight back with details of the crimes committed by the prisoners housed on death row.

Aba Gayle, whose daughter Catherine Blount was murdered by Mickey all those years ago, is firmly in the camp of those who want to see the death penalty abolished.

"It's my belief that murder is wrong," said Gayle, who spent years grieving but eventually met with Mickey at San Quentin and forgave him. "It's wrong whether it happens on the streets, in a home, in a school or in a prison."

Gayle said she sees the death penalty as the ultimate form of revenge. Richard Mobilio agrees – but his stance on capital punishment is completely different from hers.

Mobilio also lost a child to a killer on death row. His 31-year-old son Dave Mobilio was gunned down in 2002 while working as a Red Bluff police officer.

The killer was Andy Mickel, a 23-year-old drifter, and Richard Mobilio says he wants the death penalty kept intact to see Mickel executed.

"It's a primal thing, I must admit," he said. "There is something very visceral about getting your due."

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