Editorials

California death penalty is beyond repair and should be abolished

swparra@fresnobee.com

For Californians, this is a life-or-death election.

That’s because there are two propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot dealing with our state’s death penalty for the most heinous murderers.

Here in Fresno, we know about the worst of the worst. One of them was Clarence Ray Allen. He was the last man executed in California – on Jan. 17, 2006.

Allen’s execution by lethal injection came 26 years after he, while in prison, ordered the killings of witnesses who had testified against him. In 1980, an Allen accomplice just out of prison, Billy Ray Hamilton, carried out those orders by murdering Bryon Schletewitz, 27, Josephine Rocha, 17, and Douglas White, 18, at Fran’s Market in Fresno.

Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty. Proposition 66 promises to make capital punishment more efficient.

This editorial board long has supported the death penalty. We saw it as appropriate justice for those who, with coldhearted calculation, pulled the trigger, wielded the knife or poured the poison – and for victims and their families. We also believed that it was a deterrent: An innocent’s life might be spared because the prospect of being executed by the state would persuade someone not to carry out the most horrific of crimes.

Indeed, when voters were asked to abolish the death penalty in 2012, we opposed Proposition 34 and opined that capital punishment must play a role in the penal system.

“Supporters of Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty in California, maintain that the state’s system of capital punishment is too flawed and expensive to continue. We agree that the death penalty is flawed and the almost unlimited appeals make it very expensive.

“But instead of throwing out the death penalty, let’s fix the problems in how it is administered,” we stated in an Oct. 25, 2012, editorial.

Those problems haven’t been fixed. Nor will they be remedied by Proposition 66, which might just as well further delay executions – not shorten the appeals process.

Today, we urge that voters abolish the death penalty.

While doing so, we want it made clear that a “yes” vote on Proposition 62 would not imply a scintilla of sympathy for the 747 condemned murderers in California. Instead, it acknowledges the reality that the death penalty is dysfunctional and beyond repair.

Even if voters approve Proposition 62, death row inmates would never take a breath outside prison walls, nor should they. Their sentences would be converted to life in prison without parole. The most serious penalty for the worst murderers in the future also would be life in prison without parole.

To predict a future under Proposition 66, look at the past and present. California reinstated the death penalty first by legislation in 1977, and by initiative in 1978. But this vision of expanding the death penalty failed. Of the 930 people sentenced to death since 1978, 15 have been executed, two of them by other states. Another 104 died of natural causes, suicide or drug overdoses, and 64 had their sentences reduced.

Nationally, capital punishment has become uncommon. Courts and governors in a half-dozen states have imposed actual or de facto moratoriums, California included, and the Nebraska Legislature abolished capital punishment last year, though voters there are contemplating a referendum to reinstate it.

The Death Penalty Information Center counts 16 executions this year, down from 28 in 2015, and 98 in 1999. All of the state-sanctioned killings were in Southern states, seven of them in Texas and six in Georgia. Jurors nationally have imposed fewer death sentences, 49 last year, down from 114 in 2010.

Proposition 66 pledges it would counter that trend by compelling completion of death penalty appeals within five years, and limiting collateral appeals, or habeas corpus petitions. The measure would relieve the California Supreme Court of some death penalty work by shifting aspects to trial and appellate courts, and increase the number of lawyers who represent death row inmates. As it is, inmates must wait years to get an appellate lawyer.

It makes sense on paper. But lawyers cannot be compelled to handle death cases. And the death penalty defense bar is a tenacious, creative and determined group. Although the initiative might shorten state court appeals, California voters have no direct impact on the federal court system where lifetime tenured judges decide cases on their own terms, or don’t.

Nothing in the initiative forces the Legislature and governor to increase funding to pay for the additional appellate costs – estimated by the nonpartisan legislative analyst to be in the tens of millions annually. Politics being what they are, lawmakers would find many more popular places to spend money.

“It will spawn years and possibly decades of litigation,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

California uses lethal injection, adopted in 1992, supposedly as a more humane alternative to the gas chamber. In 2006, a federal judge ruled that California’s three-drug lethal injection was deficient. Since then, the state has been revising the method, or, more accurately, slow-walking the revision.

Proposition 66 might resolve that lethal-injection issue by embedding into law a method that courts have deemed to be constitutional. But even if it all works, Californians must ask themselves whether they want an efficient death penalty system, and all that would entail.

There would need to be more than an execution a day, every day, for two years to empty death row. The cost of administering the system would be huge, and no governor, attorney general, warden or correctional officer would want that many deaths haunting their conscience.

If the state were to become efficient at carrying out executions, the time inevitably would come when one of the men – they’re almost all men – who is put to death would be severely mentally ill or intellectually deficient, would have been represented by incompetent lawyers, or, worst of all, innocent.

Sooner rather than later, questions of equal treatment would come to the fore. African Americans account for 36 percent of the condemned population, far surpassing their percentage of the state’s population. Riverside County represents less than 6 percent of the state’s population, but has sent 89 people to death row, almost 12 percent of the total. San Francisco, by contrast, has just one person on death row.

Thoughtful supporters of the death penalty can muster powerful arguments for it. Vengeance and retribution are among them, as many survivors of murder victims can attest. Ask any homicide detective or career prosecutor, or even many social workers, and you will hear details of depravity beyond comprehension.

Their arguments, all heartfelt, are not without merit. We understand them. But there also are good reasons why so many people oppose capital punishment, not least the extent to which state-sanctioned killing makes all of us complicit.

Since voters narrowly rejected the 2012 initiative, little has changed, except that 20 more condemned inmates beat the executioner by dying of natural causes or suicide. Meanwhile, questions persist about our collective willingness to carry out the ultimate penalty, about the vagaries of an imperfect justice system, and the fundamental principle we learned as children: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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