SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — More Death Row inmates have died of natural causes, suicide and murder than have been executed since California re-instated capital punishment 35 years ago.
Supporters of Proposition 34, which seeks to abolish the state's death penalty, cite the $4 billion spent since 1978 in support of capital punishment. They say the money spent each year on housing condemned inmates and on the lengthy appeals process can be used instead to investigate unsolved murder and rape cases.
Opponents of the Nov. 6 ballot initiative counter that a death penalty system once labeled dysfunctional by California's chief justice should instead be fixed to quicken the pace of executions. Capital punishment supporters say it benefits public safety and gives solace to victims of violent crime.
If voters approve Proposition 34, inmates awaiting execution would have their sentences converted to life in prison without the chance of parole, which would also serve as the harshest sentence available in the state. In addition, $100 million in grants would be doled out to law enforcement agencies over the next four years to investigate cold cases.
While backers have a significant fundraising advantage, amassing $5.4 million compared to nearly $230,000 for opponents, they still face an uphill fight with voters.
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, polls throughout the years have shown that California voters support executions.
A Field Poll released Sept. 24 found that support eroding somewhat, with 45 percent of respondents opposing Proposition 34 and 42 percent saying they intend to vote for it.
"It's broken and can't be fixed," said Jeanne Woodford, a Proposition 34 campaign leader who presided over four executions while serving as warden at San Quentin State Prison.
She is now head of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit organization seeking the repeal of the death penalty nationwide.
Major financial supporters include Nicholas Pritzker, chief executive of the Hyatt hotels chain, and billionaire Charles Feeney's Atlantic Advocacy Funds, both of whom kicked in $1 million each. The American Civil Liberties Union also is an active financial backer. One of its lawyers, Natasha Minsker, is serving as Proposition 34's campaign manager.
Thanks to lengthy appeals and direct legal attacks on the state's death penalty itself, California's Death Row at San Quentin has ballooned to nearly 730 inmates. Just 13 executions have been carried out since the death penalty was reinstated, none since 2006. During that same period, 89 Death Row inmates have died of something other than an execution.
Opponents are led by two former Republican governors — Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian — and include a coalition of prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
They concede the system is deeply flawed, but their campaign slogan is "mend it, don't end it." The opposition argues that a streamlined process, including using a single execution drug rather than the current three-drug mixture, will speed up the process and limit expenses. Abolishing the death penalty, opponents say, will raise prison health care costs.
"Proposition 34 Takes $100 million from California's general fund," said former California Department of Finance Director Mike Genest, an official opponent. "Prop. 34 will cost taxpayers millions more annually by guaranteeing murderers lifetime housing and health care benefits."
Former Attorney General John Van De Kamp and several other criminal justice experts published a report in 2008 that concluded it would cost the state an additional $79 million a year in attorney fees to reduce the time it takes to resolve death penalty cases in California from an average of 25 years to the national average of 12.5 years.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says California would save $130 million a year by abolishing the death penalty and the added security, legal costs and housing costs associated with death row and executions.
A federal judge in 2006 halted executions in California and ordered prison officials to overhaul the state's executions procedures, which included carrying out lethal injections in San Quentin's former gas chamber.
Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 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.