Capital punishment in California continues to be a controversial topic. It is intended to act as a deterrent to criminal activity. The thought is that a person will reconsider their criminal behavior if they know that they could be put to death.
Studies about the effectiveness of the death penalty are mixed. California’s death penalty punishment has a long and complicated history.
As recent as 2016, Californians voted on Proposition 62, which if passed would have repealed the death penalty. Supporters of the Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act (known as the SAFE California Act), sought to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole ("LWOP"). Voters rejected this proposition by over 53%.
At the same time, California voters passed Proposition 66, limiting the timeframe for death penalty appeals to only 5 years. This initiative was challenged in court and the California Supreme Court held that while Constitutional, the requirements to speed up the process are a directive and not mandatory.
SafeCalifornia provides in-depth information regarding California's death penalty including: historical overview, a discussion on Prop 62 and Prop 34, the appeals process, and other issues of regarding capital punishment. This project is brought to you by Los Angeles criminal lawyer Ambrosio Rodriguez and his team that includes former prosecutors and public defenders. Mr. Rodriguez is a former prosecutor who has tried several death penalty cases throughout his career.
History of Death Penalty in California
The death penalty was formally introduced into California law in 1872. Death sentence executions were required to be carried out in a County jail or other private facility. In 1882, the death penalty became a state issue. Executions were required to be carried out by hanging at one of two California state prisons: San Quentin State Prison or Folsom State Prison.
The California death penalty faced some serious legal issues in the 1900s. This led to a decline in the number of death row inmates who were executed. In fact, no inmates were executed in California between the years of 1968 and 1991.
During this time, there were many legal challenges to the death penalty in the state. Early versions of the death penalty imposed a mandatory sentence of death for certain crimes. The California death penalty also did not allow death row defendants to introduce mitigating evidence in their cases. These are reasons why California’s death penalty was found to be unconstitutional on at least three occasions.
California legislators and voters worked to amend the death penalty to make sure that it was not considered to be cruel and unusual punishment. Life imprisonment without possibility of parole was introduced as an alternative sentence. Juries were permitted to sentence a defendant to death only after they considered all relevant (mitigating and aggravating) evidence. California voters also passed a referendum that imposed certain procedural requirements and protections for death row inmates. These procedures led to a backlog of death row cases.A backlog of death row cases led to more legal issues. California death row inmates argued that they were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. California has been bogged down with legal arguments about the length of time a capital offense case takes.
Death by lethal injection was introduced as the primary method for executions in California. Inmates argued that the California procedures were not sufficient and could result in cruel and unusual punishment. At least one inmate had his execution stayed by a United States District Court Judge. California was ordered to make changes to its lethal injection protocol and procedures if it wanted to continue executing death row inmates. California fine-tuned its lethal injection protocol and was permitted to continue executing death row inmates.
The 2000s also saw a rise in the number of voter referendums to abolish the death penalty. Issues including the cost of the death penalty, the slow pace of death row cases, and wrongly executing innocent people drove these movements. Voter referendums to abolish the death penalty in California have been unsuccessful. However, the margin of victory to keep it has been slim. Recent reports indicate that the number of people who oppose the death penalty in California is rising.
Today, the death penalty is legal. There are currently 747 inmates on death row in California. The last execution in California took place back in 2006. Even though propositions to abolish the death penalty have been defeated in the past few year, there seems to be growing support for getting rid of capital punishment. The death penalty faces continued pushback from California residents and the legal community. The future of the little-used death penalty in California is unclear.
Understanding Proposition 62 - 2016 Ballot Initiative to Abolish the Death Penalty
In 2016, California voters were asked if they were for or against the death penalty. Proposition 62 was formally placed on the November ballot. If it passed, the referendum would have abolished the death penalty in the state of California. The measure ultimately failed. 52 percent of California voters rejected the referendum. As a result, the death penalty remained a possible penalty for certain crimes in California.
Arguments For Proposition 62
Proponents of Proposition 62 had several reasons for wanting to abolish the death penalty in California. The primary arguments of those in favor of getting rid of capital punishment included:
- Each California execution costs taxpayers an average of $384 million;
- The death penalty does not provide any true comfort to victims’ families;
- The potential for executing an innocent person is extremely high;
- Death row inmates would never be released - they would be forced to spend the rest of their lives in prison with other criminals.
Proposition 62 would have required that all inmates sentenced to death have their sentences switched to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The referendum would have required inmates to work in prison to pay restitution to their victim’s families. Proponents of Proposition 62 claim that, if passed, the measure would save taxpayers $150 million every year.
Arguments Against Proposition 62
Opponents of Proposition 62 are firm believers in the death penalty. They view the death penalty as the ultimate deterrent of violent crime. Opponents of Proposition 62 argue that the death penalty is only used in the most serious cases, and that removing the possibility of death could have serious consequences. Most opponents of Proposition 62 disagreed with the statement that the death penalty is used to execute innocent people. They claim that there is no evidence to support that claim. Instead of abolishing the death penalty, proponents advocated fixing the broken system.
Why Proposition 62 Failed
Proposition 62 failed because opponents conceded that the current California death penalty system was broken. Opponents advocated fixing the system, rather than getting rid of it altogether. Offering a solution to the broken system probably helped to persuade voters to vote against a repeal of the death penalty. In fact, there was a referendum on the same November 2016 ballot that outlined how the broken system would be fixed. Proposition 66 required the death sentence process to be streamlined. The referendum also required death row inmates to work in prison to pay restitution to their victims’ families. Proposition 66 was passed by California voters. Had Proposition 66 not been on the ballot, it is possible that Proposition 62 would have passed.
Understanding Proposition 34 - 2012 Ballot Initiative to Abolish the Death Penalty
Proposition 34 the framework for failed Proposition 62. Opponents of the death penalty prepared a campaign that was known as the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act (SAFE California). The campaign was designed to abolish the death penalty and impose strict and harsh penalties on those who commit the state’s most serious crimes. Current death row inmates would have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In addition to abolishing the death penalty, Proposition 34 would have:
- Instituted life in prison without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment for a crime in California.
- Required anyone convicted of murder to work in prison while serving a life sentence. The wages they earned would be used to pay restitution to the families of their victims.
- Allocated $100 million to a fund to help law enforcement agencies investigate and solve cases of homicide and rape.
The SAFE California Act was defeated at the polls in November 2012. 52 percent of voters opposed the referendum. Many California voters were apparently more in favor of fixing the broken system rather than getting rid of it.
A death penalty case begins with a criminal trial that is split into two phases, the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, a jury will determine if a defendant is guilty of a capital offense. If they find the defendant guilty, they will determine if that defendant should be sentenced to death or life in prison. If the jury determines that the death penalty should be imposed the appeals process will begin immediately.
California Death Penalty Appeals Overview
The California death penalty appeals process is complicated. Criminal defendants convicted of a capital offense and sentenced to death are automatically granted a direct appeal to the California Supreme Court. The Court will review legal briefs, hear oral arguments, and consider the trial court’s decision. After this review, the California Supreme Court must either affirm or reverse the conviction and/or sentence.
At the same time, a defendant may pursue other appeals on both the federal and state levels. A criminal defendant can file a writ of habeas corpus with both federal and state courts. These appeals are not limited to the trial record. Instead, a defendant has the ability to argue anything that may be relevant to his/her conviction and sentence. These appeals work up through the federal and state court systems as they progress, ending with the California Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States.
A defendant has the right to file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. The writ of certiorari is used to appeal the facts and evidence that were a part of the defendant’s criminal case. This petition is a federal appeal and must argue federal issues. The Supreme Court of the United States has the power to approve or deny your petition for a writ of certiorari. If the petition is denied, this avenue for appeals is over. If the petition is approved, the Supreme Court will hear the defendant’s argument.
What is the Cost of the Death Penalty in California?
One of the primary argument of anti-death penalty advocates is that the death penalty is expensive. It costs California taxpayers a lot of money to execute a death row inmate. The cost of executing a death row inmate begins at the very beginning of a capital case.
Defendants charged with a capital offense must go through a lengthy legal process before they are executed. All of these legal procedures end up being very costly. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort to prosecute a capital case. It takes even more time and money to house a death row inmate. Each year, the cost of housing death row inmates while they argue each and every appeal they have increases.
It is estimated that the California death penalty system has cost nearly $5 billion since 1978. What did California spend $5 billion to do? One report indicates that the $5 billion was generated by costs associated with:
- Incarcerating defendants ($70 million each year);
- Habeas Corpus petitions ($775 million)
- Automatic appeals and legal challenges ($925 million).
During that time, only 13 death row inmates have been executed. This means that it cost an average of $384 million to execute each of those death row inmates.
California Death Penalty Method of Execution
Every state has a slightly different position regarding how death row inmates should be executed. Some states, like California, offer inmates a choice of methods.
In California, the primary method that is used to execute death row inmates is lethal injection. However, inmates can choose to be put to death in a gas chamber, if they so choose.
California has not always used lethal injection or gas chambers as the primary method of execution. The very first death sentence imposed in California was reportedly carried out by a firing squad.
In the late 1800s, death by hanging became the official method used in the state. In the 1930s, the gas chamber was introduced. It became the primary method in 1937.
The gas chamber remained the primary method of execution until 1993, when the process for death by lethal injection was implemented. Since then, lethal injection has been the primary method of execution.
Is the Death Penalty Fairly Implemented?
This is a difficult question to answer. Many California voters - even those opposed to the death penalty - have acknowledged that the death penalty system is broken. There have been many attempts to abolish the death penalty because the system is so flawed. As new information about these flaws comes to light, more individuals are reporting that they oppose the death penalty.
However, recent amendments to the law have introduced solid ways to fix the California death penalty system. The solutions are intended to make the death penalty a more fair and just process. If implemented correctly, the changes could prevent innocent people from being executed and ensure that death row inmates were not forced to endure a long and cruel process. It will take time to see if these solutions have a meaningful impact.
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