Voters in November will be asked if they want to get rid of California’s death penalty, currently imposed on 726 inmates — 112 of them from Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The state’s death chamber has gone unused since 2006 because of a judicial review of the lethal injection protocol.
If passed, the Prop. 34 initiative will abolish capital punishment in the state and retroactively impose a new sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for previously condemned inmates. It also directs grants of $100 million over four years to law enforcement for investigation of murder and rape cases.
Prop. 34’s supporters are outspending opponents, $6.5 million to $321,000. Even so, polls show the measure appears headed to defeat, although by narrow margins in some surveys.
Advocates hope to gain voters by citing a “broken” capital punishment system that has cost an estimated $4 billion since 1978, and has 25 to 30 years of appeals per case.
They concede that other arguments — racial disproportion, the possibility of a wrongful execution, humanitarian considerations, and claims the death penalty does nothing to deter murders — have failed to create a groundswell of opposition in the past.
“There is a time when we have to look at the economic situation that we are in, and when we do that we see a real advantage to replacing the death penalty in California,” said Audrey Owens, speaking as president of the Inland Valley Chapter of Death Penalty Focus a group that collected signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. She is also a Riverside County deputy public defender.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates initial savings of $100 million a year for counties and the state related to murder trials, death penalty appeals and correction costs, with the amount growing to $130 million annually, with fluctuations of tens of millions of dollars, depending on how the measure is put into practice.
Opponents question the cost claims and are counting on historic public support for the death penalty as a tool for prosecutors. Prop. 34, they claim, is a disingenuous effort by long-time death penalty opponents to present their arguments under the guise of a pocketbook issue.
“In California, the time and money is really tied up in the appellate process, and that can be somewhat easily remedied,” said Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, who is a statewide co-chairman for the “No On Prop. 34” campaign. “It is interesting that the people advocating doing away with the death penalty (because of costs) are the ones who are costing the state millions of dollars in years and years of appellate review.”
Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin, who has prosecuted several high-profile death-penalty cases in Riverside County, said he believes Prop. 34 proponents are padding their death-penalty cost estimates by including salaries of county prosecutors, public defenders and judges that would be incurred regardless of what case was being tried.
Only 2 percent of murders are tried as death penalty cases, he said, “a tiny slice of the state budget.”
Hestrin and Zellerbach both said in separate interviews that death penalty supporters they have met want the appellate system fixed to end the lengthy appeals process in California. Strict court deadlines and consequences for delays are one answer, Hestrin said.
“Give the system teeth,” Hestrin said. “If you are a death penalty attorney, what is your incentive, and your client’s, to hurry? We have allowed a giant filibuster by those opposed to the death penalty.”
Awaiting the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote is the reason given by the judge in the Rickie Lee Fowler murder and arson case in San Bernardino County to schedule Fowler’s sentencing on Nov. 16. Jurors are recommending death.
Inland-area contributions against Prop. 34 include $25,000 from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, $5,000 from the Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Association Political Action Committee, and $10,000 from the Riverside Police Officers Association PAC.
Among those on San Quentin’s Death Row are at least three men sentenced to die for murdering Riverside police officers, including Earl Ellis Green, sentenced to death earlier this year for the November 2009 slaying of Riverside Officer Ryan Bonaminio.
Others include serial killer William Suff, convicted of slaying 12 women in Riverside County between June 1989 and December 1991; Raymond Lee Oyler, sentenced for the arson deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters fighting the Esperanza Fire in 2006, and Kevin Cooper, convicted in the deaths of two adults and two children by knife and hatchet in a Chino Hills ranch home in 1983.
California has executed only 13 inmates since the death penalty was re-instated in 1977 and the state has the largest number of condemned prisoners in the country. They are more likely to die from natural causes, suicide or prison murders than to be executed.