Death penalty could be repealed
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California voters will decide in November whether to abolish the death penalty.
The SAFE California Act of 2012 qualified for the ballot Monday after proponents submitted more than 800,000 signatures.
If approved, the measure would repeal the death penalty as punishment, and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
"There is no question that this is an historic occasion," said former San Quentin State Prison warden Jeanne Woodford, in a conference call Monday.
Woodford, who oversaw four executions at San Quentin, said California has wasted billions building the nation's largest death penalty system, yet has executed just 13 people in 30 years.
"They system is a colossal failure," she said, noting that death row inmates get special legal services and expensive housing, yet 99 percent of them will die of illness or old age, just like people serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The measure would retroactively apply to the 720 inmates already sentenced to death and are awaiting execution on death row.
And that is one of the issues Colusa County District Attorney John Poyner has with the ballot.
He believes the retroactive nature of the initiative is unfair to the victims' families, and the judicial system as a whole.
"The people have already spoken," said Poyner, noting the California District Attorney's Association came out against the initiative Tuesday.
But Poyner's objection has another layer. He does not think the measure will accomplish what it claims — namely providing more funding to law enforcement.
Proponents say the initiative would save the state about $100 million each year.
Poyner said the money promised — $30 million each year from 2013 to 2016 — would not be enough to make a difference in solving crimes.
"It is just a carrot to dangle in front of a horse," said Poyner, who has successfully proscuted death penalty cases, and has been part of a defense team that successfully argued against the sentence. "Thirty million wouldn't be enough for Los Angeles, much less the entire state."
Either way, the ballot measure comes too late for convicted murderer Clarence Ray Allen, who was put too death in 2006.
Allen was last man executed in the state for orchestrating, while serving life in prison on an earlier murder and robbery conviction, the killing of three prosecution witnesses connected to his case, and conspiracy to murder five others.
Allen was sentenced to lethal injection by a Glenn County jury in 1980.
"I have no regrets when it comes to our decision," said Ray Mudd on Monday. "I believe justice was served."
Mudd, who was one of the youngest members of the jury, said he learned a lot about the justice system during the 23 day trial, which was heard in Glenn County, due to a change in venue.
"I leaned what works and what doesn't work," he said.
But unlike proponents for the SAFE California Act, Mudd said rather than accepting the system as failure, the public would be better served by streamlining the execution process like other states, such as Florida and Texas.
"Only in California does it cost more and take longer to carry out executions," he said. "That is what needs to be fixed."
Poyner agrees. He said the state needs to streamline the system. That would save money, too.
Mudd believes the pressure on voters to abolish the death penalty is less about saving money and more about "pro-life" politics and liberal philosophy.
"There are a lot of ways they can save money," he said. "They chose not to do it, and would rather tax us on everything."
Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles District Attorney, said life over death is, in fact, part of the reason voters should do away with capital punishment.
"We know of at least one factually innocent person who was put to death," Garcetti said, in a conference call on Monday. "There are probably others."
Public opinion polls now show that 48 percent of California voters have a strong preference for life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty, a substantial increase from 20 years ago.
Cost is the key reason for the shift, Garcetti said.
Unlike the death penalty, life in prison does not guarantee an automatic appeal to the US Supreme court.
"That is where the cost really balloons," he said. "Life in prison would mean significantly less money spent. We know that."
Although the measure would likely trigger some layoffs at prosecutorial and public defender offices who handle death penalty cases, substantial savings would also come from money paid to death row inmates' private attorneys who handle their appeals.
If passed, persons sentenced to the maximum punishment would be required to work while in prison, and their wages would go to their victims for restitution, Woodford said.
CONTACT Susan Meeker at 934-6800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.