Crime & Justice

Death penalty showdown expected in 2016

California's death row at San Quentin State Prison.
California's death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Eric Risberg/AP

Supporters and foes of California’s death penalty will be vying for your signature on street corners and outside grocery stores over the coming weeks as each side seeks to place a measure on next year’s November ballot.

Two separate initiatives are making their way through the ballot proposition process--one that would end capital punishment in California and another that seeks to jump-start a stalled execution system.

Death penalty opponents are led by actor Mike Farrell, best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the T.V. series M*A*S*H. Farrell, a longtime death penalty opponent, has proposed an initiative would convert all death sentences to life in prison without parole.

State analysts have found eliminating capital punishment could save California around $150 million a year. Farrell has called the death penalty an "empty promise" that drains state resources, as well as morally repugnant.

There hasn't been an execution in California since 2006, though nearly 750 inmates sit on death row--the men at San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco, and the women at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. 

A competing ballot initiative would create a streamlined system for capital punishment. Put forth by a group of California district attorneys including Jackie Lacey of Los Angeles County, the initiative would accelerate appeals for death row inmates. It would also change the way they're housed to save money.

Voters last took up the issue in 2012, when Proposition 34 failed by a narrow margin. The law would have ended the death penalty.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that California's death penalty system was unconstitutional because it is arbitrary, plagued with delay and violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

But earlier this month, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling on a technicality. A three judge panel said the judge failed to address the question of whether life on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment.