SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Death penalty opponents in California are trying a new argument this year: Abolish capital punishment because the perpetually cash-strapped state just can't afford it.
Voters in the state with the nation's largest death row will decide Tuesday whether to repeal the death penalty. Proponents of Proposition 34 say incarceration and litigation costs are too high for too little return.
California has spent about $4 billion since capital punishment resumed in 1977, yet just 13 inmates have been put to death.
An independent analysis says the state would save between $100 million and $130 million a year by converting death sentences to life-without-parole, money supporters say could be put toward public schools and local law enforcement investigations.
"The death penalty is a giant rathole where so much of California's budget is thrown with no discernible benefit," said Dionne Wilson, whose husband, a police officer, was killed by a man now on death row.
A supporter of Proposition 34, she said the death sentence given to her husband's killer "didn't change anything. I still don't have a husband and my children and family are devastated."
Opponents say the argument is merely a smoke screen by the American Civil Liberties Union and other longtime opponents of capital punishment.
Promoting Proposition 34 as a budget-saving mechanism is a convenient way to achieve their goal of ending capital punishment and minimizes the rights of victims, say the law enforcement and victims' rights groups who are waging the campaign against the initiative.
"He deserves the ultimate punishment for what he did to my daughter," said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was abducted, raped and killed by Richard Allen Davis in 1993. "The crimes these characters have committed are so beyond the pale that you need an extreme punishment."
Klaas, an outspoken Proposition 34 opponent, acknowledged the state's death penalty is broken because so few inmates have been executed. But rather than do away with it, he said, the appeals process should be streamlined so more executions can be carried out, especially one for his daughter's killer.
Three former California governors — two Republicans and a Democrat— have spoken out against the initiative. One, Republican Pete Wilson, co-wrote the official argument against Proposition 34 that says the ACLU, which is pushing the initiative, is largely responsible for the high costs of housing death row inmates and the lengthy appeals process.
That the group would focus on money to be saved if capital punishment ended is hypocritical, he wrote. Repeal also could lead to higher court costs because prosecutors use the possibility of a death sentence as a way to get defendants to plead guilty to a lesser sentence and thus save costs, said Mike Genest, part of the No on 34 campaign.
Citing one study, he said eliminating that bargaining chip could lead to four times as many criminal trials.
Genest, a former state finance director, also said the roughly $100 million a year that might be saved by repealing the death penalty is a negligible amount in a state general fund that typically is more than $90 billion.
"If you're considering voting 'yes' on this because it saves money, that's ridiculous," he said. "It's either incorrect, it won't save money or it's irrelevant — it won't save enough money to have any consequence."
If Proposition 34 passes, it would be only the second time in U.S. history — and the first time since a 1964 election in Oregon — that voters have repealed a state's death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
A total of 17 states have repealed the death penalty, 16 through their legislatures. Five state legislatures have done so in the last five years, including Connecticut this year.
A Field Poll in late September found Proposition 34 failing to gain majority support among likely voters, with 42 percent in favor. Yet the poll also found a softening of support for the death penalty overall, with 45 percent saying California should retain capital punishment. The rest were undecided.
Proposition 34 would strike capital punishment from the state's books and shutter death row at San Quentin State Prison, the country's largest at 725 inmates. The sentences would be converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Opponents of Proposition 34 argue that eliminating the death penalty makes the state more dangerous, ignores the wishes of many crime victims and allows some of the most notorious killers, including Scott Peterson, Richard "the Night Stalker" Ramirez and Charles Ng, to escape justice.
Their slogan is "mend it, don't end it." A more streamlined process, including using a single execution drug rather than the current three-drug mixture, will speed up the process and limit expenses, they say.
A federal judge in 2006 halted executions in California and ordered prison officials to overhaul the state's procedures, which included carrying out lethal injections in San Quentin's former gas chamber.
Since then, the corrections department has built a new death chamber that resembles a bright and antiseptic hospital room and adopted new written protocols. Those protocols, though, are the subject of a state judge's order barring executions until they are properly adopted according to California's administrative code.
The last time voters weighed in on the question was 1978, when 71 percent approved expanding the death penalty law passed the previous year by the Legislature. Since then, public opinion surveys have shown consistently that California voters support executions.
Among those supporting the ballot initiative is a victim of a violent crime, J. Rose Steward. She was abducted, raped and left for dead by Dean Phillip Carter, who went on to kill four other women and received the death penalty in 1990. He is still on Death Row, and Steward morally opposes his execution.
"I don't want blood on my hands like he has," she said.