California Death Penalty Hangs On (Barely)

November 7, 2012

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio

By a narrow 52.7%-47.3% margin, California voters have chosen to retain their state’s death penalty.  This represents a 19% decline in support for capital punishment from the 1978 referendum that enacted the current death penalty law. At that time 71% voted for the death penalty.

The need to end the killing of prisoners and redirect resources in a more useful way (like investigating the 46% of murders that go unsolved in California each year) brought together a wide array of advocates, from human rights and civil liberties groups like Amnesty International and the ACLU, to murder victim family members, to death row exonerees, to a former warden of San Quentin and former top proponents of the 1978 ballot initiative.

As Rose Seward, who survived an attack from a serial killer who killed 5 other women, wrote just two days before the vote: “How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves?

We can’t.  That’s why support for capital punishment has declined so significantly in California.

This diminishing enthusiasm for executions, though not quite enough to pass Prop 34, is reflective of the national trend away from the death penalty. Growing moral qualms about the practice of killing prisoners, combined with frustrations over costs and worries that errors could lead to executing the innocent, are spreading across the country.

Five states in 5 years have abandoned capital punishment, and death sentences have dropped precipitously to their lowest totals since the 1970s. Executions are not likely to resume anytime soon in California, and more states are likely to repeal their death penalty laws in 2013 and beyond.