California Elections

Californians reaffirming death penalty in early returns

California appears poised for a historic change to its death penalty system – but not the one that opponents of capital punishment have spent decades pushing for.

An initiative that aims to speed up the state’s byzantine execution process led late Tuesday, while a rival effort to abolish the death penalty trailed by even more than a similar measure did four years ago.

Proposition 66, which seeks to expedite executions by hiring more lawyers to handle capital cases and instituting strict timelines for inmates’ appeals, led with about 52 percent of the vote. Proposition 62, which would eliminate the death penalty as California’s most severe criminal punishment and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, had less than 46 percent support.

The pair of measures will determine the future of a capital punishment system that both campaigns characterized as broken. Since the death penalty was reinstated nearly four decades ago, California has executed just 13 inmates, the last in 2006; nearly 750 are currently awaiting death, while more than 100 have died of natural causes or committed suicide.

The campaign pitted the American Civil Liberties Union and Silicon Valley executives, who contributed millions of dollars to repeal the death penalty, against law enforcement groups that urged voters to keep the punishment for the worst murderers and streamline the process.

After arguing for decades that the death penalty is immoral and disproportionately affects racial minorities, proponents for abolishing it turned this year to making an economic case. They emphasized that California has spent billions of dollars on trials, appeals and housing inmates while yielding only 13 executions in nearly 40 years, and repeatedly pointed to estimates that replacing the system with life sentences would save $150 million annually.

Advocates for the death penalty responded that the process has fallen apart precisely because of endless legal challenges raised by the very same foes who would like to see its demise. Executions were halted in California in 2006 because of a federal ruling that the state’s lethal injection cocktail risked causing inmates pain that would constitute a “cruel and unusual punishment,” and a new one-drug method developed last year by officials is still under review.

In the final weeks before the election, the correctional officers’ union funded a television ad campaign against Proposition 62 and for Proposition 66, telling voters that the threat of the death penalty was the last line of defense against inmates murdering guards in prison.

Opponents last pursued a repeal of capital punishment in 2012. That initiative fell short with 48 percent of the vote, a remarkably close defeat for a state where the death penalty once held approval ratings above 80 percent.

Public support has dwindled for years and is now at its lowest level since the Legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1977 over a veto by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. It can only be repealed by voters after a ballot measure the following year reaffirmed the punishment and expanded the list of capital crimes.

In California, many local district attorneys have not brought capital charges in years. The vast majority of inmates sentenced to die since 2011 come from just five neighboring counties in Southern California.

The trend is reflected nationwide, where 20 states have already abolished the death penalty; executions and new death sentences reached an all-time low in 2016.

But supporters of capital punishment could claim several victories on Tuesday night: Oklahoma voted to add it to the state constitution, while Nebraska reversed its Legislature’s decision last year to repeal the death penalty.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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