The solution laid out in Proposition 66 is to fast track the system by requiring more lawyers to take on death penalty cases, while imposing time limits on when a case needs to be decided. There are two problems with this, according to Dunham. One, requiring lawyers to take on these cases may result in lawsuits filed by attorneys who don’t want to take a case as well as lawsuits from those on death row for not receiving fair or competent representation, Dunham said. And two, imposing time limits could increase the likelihood that prosecutorial misconduct will go undetected since the goal, after all, is to close cases as fast as possible, not unearth details that could result in another wave of appeals.
California voters are split over the issue, according to a Field Poll released in September. Forty-eight percent of California voters support replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment compared to 37 percent who oppose it and 15 percent who are undecided. At this same stage four years ago, the proposition that sought to end the death penalty only had 42 percent of Californians in favor of it. The uptick in support suggests that this year may mark an end to capital punishment in the state.
The national mood on the issue echoes California’s. The majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but that margin of support has been steadily shrinking since the last presidential election. A 2014 poll also found that 52 percent of Americans prefer life in prison without parole to the death penalty, while Oklahoma—the state with the highest execution rate per capita—is determining whether it can alter execution methods in a ballot initiative.
Nebraska, likewise, contests this shift in popularity. The state legislature abolished the death penalty in May 2015. But in August 2015, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, an organization aimed at overturning this decision, filed a successful petition with close to 167,000 signatures to get the issue on November’s ballot and reinstate the death penalty. “We want to keep it on the books for the most vicious, most violent criminals,” said Bob Evnen, a Lincoln attorney and the co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
As is the case in California, Evnen acknowledges that in Nebraska it costs more to try a death penalty case, but argues that a process that aims to avoid executing an innocent person should be costly. In cases where guilt isn’t in question, the death penalty could actually prove less costly by eliminating appeals, he says, in the so-called “plea bargain effect” in which the accused individual admits guilt in order to avoid risking execution and, thus, avoids the appeals process entirely.
While Nebraska’s Legislative Fiscal Office says there’s no fiscal impact in the transition from the death penalty to life in prison without parole, another economic report commissioned by Retain a Just Nebraska, an organization that opposes the death penalty, estimated that eliminating the death penalty would save the state $14.6 million annually.