California Voters Should Abolish the Death Penalty in 2012


A ballot initiative to do so is likely to qualify for the ballot, having garnered substantially more signatures than needed.

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A Californian can be sentenced to death if found guilty of first degree murder or a few other offenses: treason against the state, train-wrecking that results in a death, or perjury that results in the execution of an innocent. There are 723 death row inmates in the Golden State, none for train-wrecking, treason, or perjury. And the whole lot of first-degree murderers will have their lives spared if the state's voters pass a ballot initiative in November that would abolish the death penalty.

Steve Cooley, the District Attorney in Los Angeles County, is against the initiative. "This would essentially eliminate death penalty for the cop killers, the baby killers and the serial killers that are among us," he said, adding that if its proponents "want to let these people live out their lives gracefully and expensively, with us taking care of their healthcare bill, fine and dandy, but some of these criminals have forfeited their right to be on the face of the earth." It's a misleading argument, because administering the death penalty turns out to cost more than locking people up for life. "The measure directs $100 million saved from abolishing the death penalty be spent over three years investigating unsolved murders and rapes," The Associated Press reports.

Cost aside, conservative support for the death penalty is problematic insofar as the right asks voters to believe both that 1) government is frequently inept and corrupt, and inclined to abuses of power; 2) government is capable of determining guilt with sufficient certainty to irreversibly impose the most extreme penalty there is. Here is a list of people executed when their guilt was in doubt. A former governor of Illinois signed a death penalty ban in his state due partly to the alarming number of innocents who were on death row. Texas likely executed an innocent man.

Though California is one of 34 states where executions can still take place, it has executed just 13 people since 1978, when voters reinstated the death penalty. The California Supreme Court had declared the practice unconstitutional in 1972; the legislature amended the constitution to reinstate the practice; and the California Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional again in 1976.

"Backing the new measure are Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California's death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system," the LA Times reports. With more death row inmates than any other state in the country, ending the death penalty would be a major victory for those who oppose it. Next on the list are Florida with 402 death row inmates and Texas with 312 death row inmates (though the Lone Star State is in third place only because it has executed 481 of its prisoners since 1976). 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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