LOS ANGELES (AP) — Californians were leaning Tuesday toward reforming the state’s broken death penalty rather than getting rid of it.
Early returns showed 51 percent of more than 3 million voters favored an effort to speed up appeals so condemned murders are actually put to death.
A dueling measure to replace capital punishment with life in prison without chance of parole trailed with about 46 percent support.
Supporters for both measures agreed the current system does not work. More than 900 convicted killers have been sent to death row since 1978, but only 13 have been executed in the state. The last execution by lethal injection was more than a decade ago.
For most voters, the repeal effort known as Proposition 62 provided a sense of deja vu. Four years ago, a similar measure to do away with capital punishment failed 52 percent to 48 percent.
Prosecutors and police vowed to launch a reform effort if that measure was defeated. A year ago, they made good on that promise and were joined by family members of slaying victims to announce the measure now known as Proposition 66 that aims at speeding up tedious appeals that can take more than a quarter century.
The measures come at a turning point for executions nationally. Capital punishment has been either legislatively or judicially repealed in eight states since 2000 and has mostly been in a steady decline since.
“The death penalty has been losing favor for 20 years,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that is critical of problems in the death penalty system but does not take an official stance or advocate for legislation or ballot measures.
“Its support continues to fall,” Dunham said. “Even when legislative efforts to repeal it fall short, everyone understands there’s going to be another attempt.”
Opponents of the death penalty pressed a multi-pronged campaign. They argued that the death penalty is expensive because of the lengthy repeals and eliminating it would save $150 million a year. They also held news conferences with former death row convicts who had their convictions overturned to emphasize the risk of executing an innocent person.
Supporters of the death penalty said the most evil killers deserve to die and that speeding up executions would guarantee they get the punishment determined by jurors and approved by a judge. They said executions would deliver justice to family members of their victims.
Law enforcement groups supported the pro-death penalty side, along with kin of victims. Family and friends of Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve 2002, recently held a news conference to support the measure and oppose the repeal attempt. Her husband, Scott Peterson, has been on death row for 11 years.
Capital punishment opponents include legal, civil liberties and religious groups along with former President Jimmy Carter and big money donors such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and Stanford computer sciences professor Nicholas McKeown.
Each measure needs a majority of votes to pass. If neither reaches that threshold, the current system remains in place. In the unlikely event both surpass 50 percent, the measure with the most “yes” votes would prevail.