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Would you vote to end the death penalty in 2012? Anti-death penalty group aims for the ballot

In this photo taken Tuesday Sept. 21, 2010, the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison.
In this photo taken Tuesday Sept. 21, 2010, the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

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Polling data from the last 50 years suggests that California voters would reject a measure abolishing the state's death penalty if it ever came to the ballot. Despite that evidence, Senate Bill 490 proposed doing just that, until legislators tabled it in committee last week. Now, Taxpayers for Justice, a coalition of death penalty opponents, is going to the people.

They hope to collect 504,760 signatures to get an initiative on the November 2012 ballot that, if passed, would abolish the death penalty in California.

They're armed with practical statistics they hope will convince voters who aren't swayed by moral arguments alone. For example, a recent study by a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and a Loyola law professor found that taxpayers spent $4 billion over the last 30 years to carry out only 13 executions.

But some find those numbers dubious. "It's highly misleading to take the cost and divide it by the number of executions carried out when it's the opponents who are responsible for those executions by their success in killing those reform bills in the legislature," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

His group has worked to make the death penalty appeals process more efficient and he opposes a ballot initiative to repeal it.

"Nobody is happy with the status quo. We've been to the legislature many, many times with bills to fix the system, to make these appeals go faster, which would also have the effect of reducing the expense," he said. "Those bills have been killed in committee every single time, year after year, after year," he said.

Don Heller, author of California's 1978 death penalty statute and a former death penalty advocate, experienced a change of heart and is currently affiliated with Taxpayers for Justice.

His mind was changed when he saw bias in the system.

"I felt that there were more minorities who ended up being initially charged with capital offences and there are more minorities combined on death row than people with affluence."

Heller also found court-appointed attorneys were often ill-prepared, juggling case loads that were much too large. "I've watched the imposition of capital punishment. I found lawyers representing death penalty defendants to be marginally competent.there were a number that lacked experience and competence and that resulted in a number of those cases being overturned by the state and the federal courts," Heller told KPCC's Patt Morrison.

"The way the system functioned, I found inadequate. I think, statistically, 98 percent of people on death row have court-appointed lawyers for appeal and for trial."

Heller said currently opposes the death penalty because it's so expensive for the state and he sees evidence that it doesn't work. "The cost of capital punishment is so enormous compared to what effect it has. It kills the person who's been convicted, but it doesn't deter anyone from committing murder because people that commit murder never think about getting caught."

Scheidegger said that in California the unwieldy and slow appeals process prevents the death penalty from acting as a deterrent, but that it is fundamentally a successful form of punishment. "There are plenty of studies out there that say the death penalty is indeed a deterrent and does indeed save lies when it is enforced. It's probably not a deterrent in California because we're not enforcing it. But it would be if we did."

Taxpayers for Justice plans to begin their signature collection process this fall.

WEIGH IN: Can facts like that and a still-shrinking state budget counter the conventional wisdom of the past half-century? Would you vote for an initiative to end the death penalty and spend the money elsewhere? And can life sentencing provide the same degree of punishment as execution?


Don Heller, author of California’s 1978 death penalty statute and a former death penalty advocate; current affiliate with Taxpayers for Justice

Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation