Death penalty opponents say voters will decide whether to abolish punishment (California)
March 1, 2012
By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee
Advocates of replacing California's death penalty with life imprisonment announced this morning that they had collected 800,000 signatures in their effort to get the issue on November's ballot, an amount they say is more than enough to ensure voters will have a chance to decide the matter.
"It means the SAFE California Act will be on the November 2012 ballot," Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said at a press conference at the Secretary of State's office in Sacramento.
The ACLU and death penalty opponents are pressing the SAFE campaign - which stands for "Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement" - as a measure that will save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
If approved by voters, the measure would do away with the death penalty and send the 725 inmates on Death Row to life in prison without possibility of parole.
California voters approved the death penalty in 1978, but since then only 13 inmates have been executed as appeals have slowed the process to the point that many inmates have been held on Death Row for decades.
Backers of the initiative to abolish the death penalty, which include Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 measure reinstituting capital punishment, say the death penalty wastes too much money in cash-strapped California.
The announcement comes after a well-funded campaign to collect signatures, with large portions of the group's war chest coming in contributions from ACLU chapters, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and film industry executives.
Netflix CEO Red Hastings gave $125,000, as did Google executive Robert Alan Eustace, and Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty group, contributed $75,000.
The largest single contribution came from Chicago investor Nicholas Pritzker, who gave $500,000.
If the Secretary of State's office certifies there are enough valid signatures for the initiative to make the November ballot, the group said it is confident it will have the resources to fund a strong campaign.
The last Field Poll on the death penalty found more than two-thirds of California voters - 68 percent - support the death penalty, even though no one has been executed in the state since 2006.
That poll, released last September, found only 27 percent favoring abolition.
However, the same poll found that 48 percent support imposing a life-without-parole sentence for first-degree murderers compared to 40 percent who favor the death penalty.
One major opponent of the group's effort said the figures SAFE is using to back its campaign are not accurate.
"I hope the voters reject it," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.
He contends that the projected cost savings are overblown and that the cost of caring for the inmates for the rest of their lives "escalate dramatically with age."
He also noted that legal challenges to the death penalty have been whittled away in recent years to the point that the pace of executions may be speeded up once the main impediment - the legality of procedures used inside California's death chamber - is decided.
"The opposition makes much of the fact that only 13 death sentences have been carried out, but about that many have reached the end of the pipeline and are now ready to be carried out, blocked only by the unnecessary and pointless lethal injection litigation," he wrote in an email.