Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Proposition 34: Should California fix or nix its death penalty?

Bethany Webb holds a photo from her wedding of her and her sister, Laura. Laura Webb died in a massacre at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011.
Bethany Webb holds a photo from her wedding of her and her sister, Laura. Laura Webb died in a massacre at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011.
Rina Palta / KPCC

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Bethany Webb’s Huntington Beach home is filled with family photos. Many of her little sister, Laura. Laura Webb was fatally shot just over a year ago, in the Seal Beach hair salon where she worked. Her mother was wounded too, but survived. Prosecutors say a man, angry at his ex-wife who worked there, donned a bulletproof vest, walked into the salon, and killed eight people. Witnesses said Webb begged for her life before the shooter turned on her.

“My sister died afraid," Webb says. "I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking how afraid she was. And that he will never be afraid."

"He" is Scott Evans Dekraai, the man prosecutors say committed the killings. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Dekraai. But history tells us that if Dekraii is convicted and sentenced to death, he’ll be transferred to a secure, sedate cell on California’s death row, far from the customary horrors of prison life, and with a team of lawyers devoted to his case.

"I want him in the general population," Webb says. She's a spiritual person, she says, but she wants her sister's killer to feel fear and uncertainty for the rest of his life, not, as she sees it, enjoy the relatively cushy celebrity life style of a death row inmate. And Webb and her family know death would not be imminent for the killer—instead, she and her family could be in court hearings for the next 20 years while the case goes through automatic legal appeals.

“It’s a charade," says Gil Garcetti, former District Attorney of L.A. County. "No one’s getting executed. It’s a dysfunctional system.” 

Both Webb and Garcetti are both spokespersons for the Proposition 34 campaign. Proposition 34 is an initiative on the November 6 ballot that would end capital punishment. Like Webb, Garcetti thinks it’s time for California to get rid of the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.

“I want to protect the community," Garcetti says. "And to punish these individuals who committed these horrific crimes. And give legal finality to the family, the surviving family. Let them know it’s over.”

There are 727 inmates on death row in California. Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, 13 inmates have been executed, the last one 6 years ago. Cases in federal and state court currently prevent the state from carrying out executions and even if those suits went away tomorrow, the state's current lethal injection protocol calls for drugs that are not realistically attainable. The system, by everyone’s estimation, is stalled.

"It’s too long a process," says Steve Cooley, L.A.'s current district attorney. "And the people who have broken the death penalty system so far now want to abolish it.” 

Cooley says if the system is broken, fix it, don’t throw it out.

"Let’s have a defined period for a swift appeal of these cases, say 5 to 10 years, and then let’s give them the one-drug protocol and move on," Cooley says.  

Other states have considerably quicker processes, and use drugs that are readily available. But, says Garcetti, they’ve also been riddled with problems of innocent people being sent to death row. To have a system that is both constitutional and swift, you need a lot of additional resources, he says. He cites the results of a 2008 legislative panel on the topic.

“We can reduce the average appeal time from 25-plus years, maybe down to 15-plus years, but it will cost another about 100 million dollars a year," Garcetti says. "There has been no effort by anyone to follow those recommendations to fix the system.”

For some, however, it simply does not matter. People such as Kermit Alexander say spend the money and the time to fix the system because the people on death row simply deserve nothing else. 

Several of Alexander's family members were murdered in Los Angeles by a hired assassin who got the wrong house. 

“The right decision would have been after he was convicted to let me cut his throat," Alexander says. "Then my retribution would be over with. I wouldn’t have to wait. And my family wouldn’t have to languish all these years, waiting for the state to do something.” 

There is no unified voice, whether in law enforcement or among survivors of crime on the value of the ultimate penalty. In November, when California voters take up the issue for the first time in decades, Alexander says simply this: "vote with your conscience."