Capitol Alert

Will end of death penalty bring campaign against life imprisonment?

California death penalty: justice or debacle?

Legislative hearings on 2016 two capital punishment ballot measures featured former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell against past NFL player and crime victim Kermit Alexander. Warning: Explicit language in the testimony. Video courtesy of the California
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Legislative hearings on 2016 two capital punishment ballot measures featured former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell against past NFL player and crime victim Kermit Alexander. Warning: Explicit language in the testimony. Video courtesy of the California

If California voters abolish the death penalty this fall, its foes will go after life imprisonment next, proponents of a measure to speed up the capital punishment process warned Wednesday.

“Once all those attorneys who have been trying to prevent the death penalty from being enforced have nothing better to do, they’re going to turn to life without parole,” Dane Gillette, former chief assistant attorney general of California, told The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board on Tuesday. It’s “the next step to get rid of what they consider to be too much incarceration.”

Voters face two contrasting death penalty initiatives this November: Proposition 62, which would replace it with life without parole, and Proposition 66, which aims to expedite the appeals process by expanding the pool of lawyers eligible to take on capital cases and instituting shorter timelines for legal challenges.

Gillette said Proposition 62 supporters overstate the promised savings on litigation and incarceration, because inmates will simply bring the same sort of petitions against their life sentences that they currently bring against their death sentences – a phenomenon that he said can be seen in states where there is no longer capital punishment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, pointed out that California has already reversed course on life imprisonment for minors. After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 limited the use of life terms for murderers under the age of 18, California passed a law allowing those in its prisons to be resentenced.

“If the death penalty is abolished on Tuesday, the drive to abolish life without parole begins on Wednesday,” Scheidegger said.

If the death penalty is abolished on Tuesday, the drive to abolish life without parole begins on Wednesday.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

Ana Zamora, who is managing the campaign against expediting the appeals process, said that is “patently false,” and noted the death penalty should be banned for a variety of ethical, legal and fiscal reasons.

Proposition 66, on the other hand, could allow executions to resume again after more than a decade of hiatus by ending the administrative review that has held up a new lethal injection protocol since it was unveiled by the state last year. It would also give corrections officials flexibility on where to house death row inmates so that those deemed less dangerous are not kept in the maximum-security San Quentin facility that critics argue has made the death penalty too expensive to continue.

But Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said voters should ultimately not focus on the death penalty as an issue of cost.

“Are we not willing to pay as a society the cost of making sure, one, that the system has the integrity we expect, and that ultimately the sentence is recommended by a jury is carried out?” she said. “That’s the reality of the system: It costs money.”

The proponents also rejected criticisms that capital punishment is not dispensed equitably. A recent Sacramento Bee analysis found the death penalty is imposed in a declining number of counties in California, with the vast majority of new sentences coming from just five in Southern California.

“For the local community to have a voice and to have an influence over how criminal justice is administered in their local area is not a defect,” Scheidegger said. “It is local democracy...working as designed.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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