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Field Poll: Death penalty support slips in California

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Support for the death penalty in California is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years, although more than half of the state’s registered voters still favor it, a new Field Poll has found.

The poll found 56 percent still believe the death penalty should be kept as a punishment for serious crimes, with 34 percent opposed and 10 percent undecided.

The findings come as states nationwide are grappling with a shortage of drugs used for lethal injections and critics who say some recent executions have been botched and left inmates suffering as they died. They also come after a July ruling by a federal judge in Los Angeles that found lengthy delays in executing California inmates have made the death penalty unconstitutional in the state.

Support for the death penalty in California has been eroding steadily for years, falling from a high of 83 percent in 1985 and 1986 Field Polls to its current level, the lowest since a 1965 survey found only 51 percent approval. The last Field Poll done on the issue, in 2011, found 68 percent in favor of keeping the death penalty, compared to 27 percent opposed.

“To me, it’s interesting that a small plurality is continuing to support the death penalty,” said poll director Mark DiCamillo, who noted that the Field Poll has asked the same question of voters since 1956, when support for the death penalty was 49 percent, the only year it has fallen below 50 percent.

But opponents and supporters still differ sharply over whether the latest figures mean the state can expect a successful effort to ban the death penalty, as a handful of other states have done in recent years. Both sides say they expect to see ballot measures in 2016 over the issue.

“I think the trend is going to be in the direction of ‘Let’s abolish it’ for the foreseeable future until it is abolished,” said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, a one-time supporter of capital punishment who campaigned two years ago for California to become the 19th state that does not allow for execution as a punishment option.

That effort, which would have voided death sentences for the state’s 749 condemned inmates and replaced them with sentences of life without parole, failed 52 percent to 48 percent. But the close result encouraged death penalty opponents into believing they eventually can succeed in banning executions.

“I think with some of the things that have occurred around the country – screw-ups with executions, people on death row that were exonerated by DNA evidence – those are the things that cause reasonable people to say, ‘Let’s just abolish it and life without parole is a sentence that protects the safety of the general public,’ ” Heller said.

The 2012 campaign for Proposition 34 was well-funded and based on selling the public on the argument that maintaining the death penalty was wasting billions of dollars, especially in light of the fact that only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978, the last in 2006.

But death penalty supporters reject those arguments and say opponents have created the delays and added the expense of maintaining the system through endless court appeals.

“I don’t think there’s a real shift in the number of people who believed that the death penalty is right,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Scheidegger conceded that there may be a “fatigue factor” among some supporters because of delays and skepticism over whether the system ever will see executions resume on a regular basis.

“I do think that it is important that we fix the problems and get it restarted,” he said. “The best argument they have is that because they’ve been blocking it we should give up,” he said. “There are people who believe that death is the just and correct punishment for the worst murderers, but who are just frustrated and fatigued.”

The issue of continued delays led to pollsters crafting a new question for voters based on the federal judge’s ruling that California’s death penalty is so slow it is unconstitutional. That question asked what California should do in light of the ruling, and 52 percent of respondents said the state should speed up the execution process. By comparison, 40 percent said the death penalty should be replaced with life without parole, and 8 percent had no opinion.

There were few surprises in which voters support keeping the death penalty and who opposes it, DiCamillo said, with registered Republicans and conservatives, as well as Protestants and voters living in the Central Valley the strongest in favor of maintaining capital punishment.

Those most likely to oppose death as an option were Democrats, liberals, Bay Area residents, voters under 30 and those who expressed no religious preference.