All Eyes on California’s Death Penalty Repeal Vote


Voters in the nation’s most populous state could abolish the death penalty on November 6, which would have huge implications for the death penalty nationwide.

Voter support for a ballot measure to repeal California’s death penalty, Prop. 34, has jumped dramatically, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday. When voters read the official summary of the initiative, 45% of likely voters said they would vote YES, 42% would vote no, and 13% remain undecided — a 6-point shift in favor of Prop. 34 since the last Times poll in September.

California has more than 727 inmates on death row, the most in the nation. The death penalty would cost California $1 billion dollars in the next five years. Replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole would save taxpayers more than $100 million every year.

A coalition of murder victims’ family members, law enforcement officials, former prison wardens, and advocates for criminal justice reform is leading the campaign to pass Prop. 34. Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions for the State of California, is speaking out in support of reform, and conservative leaders have joined the effort.

Bill O’Reilly is the newest endorser of Proposition 34, joining conservative, Republican-appointed California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, who concluded that the death penalty system is “dysfunctional,” and current Republican-appointed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye who agrees the system is “not effective.”

Recently retired Justice Carlos Moreno, who believes in the death penalty, also supports Proposition 34, as does Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti. “I was a supporter and believer in the death penalty, but I’ve begun to see that this system doesn’t work and it isn’t functional,” Garcetti told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Garcetti, who served for 8 years as district attorney in the county responsible for about a third of California’s 727 death-row inmates, explained: “It costs an obscene amount of money.”

Garcetti is one of nearly 150 prosecutors, law enforcement officers, correctional, parole, and probation officers, and former judges who have endorsed Prop. 34. Forty-five newspapers statewide have also called on voters to vote YES on Prop. 34, from the Los Angeles Times to the San Jose Mercury News.

The primary architects of California’s death penalty are now on the front lines of the effort to repeal it, including Ron Briggs, who with his father, former state Senator John Briggs, wrote and helped pass the initiative that created California’s modern death penalty, and Don Heller, a Republican who wrote the ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California in 1978. Mr. Heller says he made a terrible mistake that created a “failed system” and is calling on California voters to abolish the death penalty, writing the “life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence.”

Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico recently abolished the death penalty because of similar concerns about its flawed administration and lack of reliability. New York’s death penalty statute was struck down as unconstitutional in 2004 and has not been reinstated. Should California voters clear the nation’s largest death row this November, it will provide an important model for other states grappling with the high costs of capital punishment and critical choices about how to use limited resources to best protect public safety.