Californians debate death penalty as vote to end it nears

09/04/2012 12:00 AM

09/04/2012 8:08 AM

Sharron Mankins, McGregor Scott and Bill Babbitt each have watched a man die inside the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison, and each has a strong view on whether voters should end California's death penalty in November.

Even after 20 years, Mankins has no regrets about watching Robert Alton Harris die by cyanide gas for the 1978 murders of her 16-year-old son, Michael Baker, and his friend John Mayeski.

"We saw justice served," the 69-year-old Southern California woman said in an interview last month. "It took a long time, but it helped us all.

"I think it helped the whole family."

Scott, who witnessed the lethal-injection execution of Darrell Rich in March 2000 as the Shasta County district attorney, remembers the event with almost clinical precision.

"I do not want to minimize or downplay the fact that the man's life was taken that night," Scott said of the so-called "Hilltop Rapist," who killed four young women in a 1978 crime spree.

"But what I observed that evening could not in any way be described as cruel or unusual punishment. It was a very calm process in which he appeared to go to sleep. And that was it."

To Mankins and Scott, the death penalty is an important tool for prosecutors and victims, one that they both believe should be retained.

For Babbitt, it is a costly waste and a reminder of the night in 1999 that he watched his brother, Manuel Babbitt, die by injection for the murder of 78-year-old Leah Schendel of Sacramento.

"Why don't we take the money and fix people like Manny Babbitt , take that money and try to solve crimes?" asked Babbitt, who turned his brother in to police after Schendel's slaying.

These are the opposing viewpoints that will play out in the coming weeks over Proposition 34, which asks voters to end the death penalty in California and allow death row inmates to be resentenced to life in prison without any chance of parole.

Supporters of the measure, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to attorneys and a former San Quentin warden, are waging a campaign based on the notion that the entire process is far too costly, and that scrapping the death penalty could save cash-strapped California hundreds of millions of dollars.

They note that legal hurdles have severely limited the state's ability to carry out executions, and that since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 only 13 men have been executed in California – the last in 2006.

Another 729 inmates are on death row awaiting executions that may be years or decades away.

"The cost of the system today is so enormous," said Don Heller, the Sacramento attorney who wrote the 1978 initiative to restore the death penalty and who now wants to do away with capital punishment.

"It's cost $4 billion to execute 13 people since 1978, approximately $330 million per execution. It makes no sense, particularly in these current economic times when we're cutting back on public safety and education."

The measure includes a provision that would take $100 million out of the state's general fund over four years and direct it to local law enforcement, money that supporters say would be more than offset by savings from ending death penalty trials, appeals and other costs.

Supporters of the death penalty say those arguments are hypocritical and just plain wrong.

"Basically, it doesn't cost as much as they claim and it doesn't need to cost as much as it does," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. "The system is entirely fixable and we've known for years how to fix it."

Scheidegger and others say the delays and huge costs that proponents of Proposition 34 cite have been created by the ACLU and other death penalty opponents.

Legal challenges to California's method of execution, currently a three-drug process, have stalled any executions since 2006 and there is no end in sight, partly because of a shortage of one of the three drugs.

Scheidegger notes that there are currently 13 inmates on death row whose appeals have been exhausted and who could be put to death in short order if the state switched to a one-drug process, as some other states have.

"They could do single drug (executions) tomorrow," Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said. "They have practiced it."

Ohio began using a one-drug process in 2009 and conducted its first execution 25 days later, according to research by Scully's office. Since then, 15 inmates have been executed in the state.

Arizona went to a one-drug protocol, as the process is called, earlier this year and executed someone two days later. California officials have indicated in court filings that if the state moved to use a single drug it "would prefer that the execution team have three days' notice."

Scully and others say California officials could easily exempt the death penalty from lengthy regulatory procedures and implement the one-drug protocol, and that the California District Attorneys Association has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to do so.

But Scully said she believes Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, both of whom oppose the death penalty but say they would enforce the law, have no interest in speeding up the process.

Scully added that she does not want to be seen as cavalierly pushing for people to be put to death, noting that the entire topic is a "solemn" one that needs to be addressed seriously. But she said the argument that money could be saved by housing condemned inmates for the rest of their lives makes no sense.

"For every person that gets their sentence of execution carried out, we have now just saved on housing and health care costs," she said. "How does that save money, by keeping them in there as opposed to executing them?"

For now, supporters of keeping the death penalty note that they are being outspent by large margins.

Backers of Proposition 34 have raised roughly $2 million so far this year from a variety of Silicon Valley and Hollywood executives, ACLU chapters and others.

Opponents of the measure have reported raising barely $50,000, although they say they expect more contributions from law enforcement groups and elected officials and that they hope voters' long-standing support for the death penalty will continue.

"I fully expect that they are going to massively outspend our side," Scheidegger said. "But there are limits to how much you can change people's minds with advertising."

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