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Initiative plan to convert death sentences to life failing in statewide ballot counting

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POSTED November 7, 2012 1:45 a.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The latest attempt to end California's death penalty was failing at the polls despite recent poll results showing the campaign's message of financial savings was resonating with voters.

With 44 percent of precincts reporting, Proposition 34 was trailing 54 percent to 46 percent.

The measure was losing even though supporters outspent opponents $6.5 million compared to $320,000.

Backed by millions of dollars from Hollywood and Silicon Valley donors, supporters of Proposition 34 called on Californians to end the death penalty as a way to save the financially strapped state hundreds of millions of dollars — if not billions over the long term.

Polls showed the race was close throughout the campaign, but support picked up in recent weeks as campaign leaders focused more on the economics of capital punishment than the moral arguments.

A Feld Poll released Nov. 2 found that 45 percent of likely voters supported Proposition 34 and 38 percent opposed. A similar poll released a month before showed 42 percent supporting and 45 opposing.

It's also a big turn-around from 1989, when a Field Poll found that 54 percent of likely voters said they thought life in prison cost the state more than sentencing someone to death.

Proposition 34 would repeal capital punishment in California and shutter Death Row, converting the death sentences of 726 inmates to life without the possibility of parole. The measure also would create a $100 million fund to help investigate unsolved murder and rape cases.

Many influential law enforcement officials and three former governors oppose the measure. They argue that the condemned inmates will escape justice and that there are no true cost savings from closing Death Row at San Quentin State Prison. The $100 million fund would come from California's general fund, further worsening the state's financial condition.

"Prop. 34 has nothing to do with economics — and everything to do with justice," said former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.

Former governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, both Republicans, also oppose the initiative.

The economic argument boils down to whether it costs more to conduct death penalty trials and house condemned prisoners than it would if life in prison without parole was the harshest penalty prosecutors could seek.

Supporters of Proposition 34 point to an influential study published by a federal appeals court judge and law professor that concluded California has spent $4 billion to carry out just 13 executions and cover other death penalty costs since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.

"I can tell you, without question, California's death penalty is all cost and no benefit," said Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin who presided over four executions. She is an official campaign backer.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says passage of Proposition 34 could save the state about $100 million a year.

Opponents argue that caring for Death Row inmates as they age and other unseen costs such as beefing up security when the condemned inmates are transferred to other prisons will wipe out any savings associated with death penalty trials, mandatory appeals and maintaining Death Row.

Proposition 34 supporters have raised and spent. Billionaires Nicholas Pritzker and Charles Feeney, through his philanthropic fund, each donated $1 million to support Proposition 34. The American Civil Liberties Union contributed more than $700,000 and is running the campaign.

Law enforcement unions are the biggest contributors to the opposition.

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