Backers of a proposed ballot initiative aimed at revamping California’s death penalty and expediting executions submitted nearly 600,000 petition signatures Thursday in hopes of getting the measure on the November ballot.
Representatives with Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings held news conferences around the state Thursday to discuss the proposal, which would attempt to speed executions by requiring the immediate appointment of an appeals attorney for defendants who are sentenced to death, while also requiring death row inmates to work while imprisoned and pay restitution to victims’ families.
It would also allow death row inmates to double-bunk instead of being held in costlier, single cells.
Backers of the measure claim it will “save California taxpayers millions of dollars every year, assure due process protections for those sentenced to death and promote justice for murder victims and their families.”
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is among the initiative’s supporters.
“There are a number of measures to speed up the process, to streamline it a little bit,” Rackauckas said. “For example, appointment of counsel to defend death penalty cases would be done at a much faster pace. Right now it takes years and years to get defense counsel to start looking at it.”
Some critics of the death penalty process point to a dearth of attorneys who specialize in the field, making it difficult for attorneys assigned to death row clients to catch up on their case loads, but Rackauckas disputed that.
“There are a lot of attorneys in this state and a lot of attorneys who have every bit of ability to handle this kind of case,” Rackauckas said. “To suggest only a few people can handle death penalty cases across the state is simply not accurate.”
Opponents claim the initiative would increase the risk of wrongful executions. Officials with the Innocence Project noted that since 1973, 156 people who were on death row were exonerated and freed, including three in California.
“California’s legal process in death penalty cases exists for a reason: to make sure that innocent people aren’t executed,” said Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project.
“This measure guts these important protections by applying unrealistic and arbitrary timelines, greatly increasing the chance that we send an innocent person to the death chamber and allow a guilty person a free pass to victimize again.”
Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project in New York, said the state would be making “a grave and irreversible mistake” by approving the initiative.
“Texas, which this initiative is modeled after, continues to grapple with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death despite powerful scientific evidence undermining his guilt and mounting evidence of prosecutorial misconduct,” Scheck said.
The National Academy of Sciences conducted a study showing 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death are innocent, said Quintin Mecke, deputy campaign manager for the Justice that Works Act of 2016.
Since 1973, about 150 defendants have been exonerated, Mecke said.
“So what’s the cost if you execute an innocent person?” Mecke said. “What do you say to their family? Sorry, or oops? When you’re dealing with something as final a punishment as putting someone to death, and since there’s no guarantees in our justice system, the most reasonable way to handle it is life without parole.”
Mecke also argued that the proposed changes would overburden state trial courts struggling with a shortage of judges, who would have to do the job of federal judges handling writs of habeas corpus.
An initiative that would outlaw the death penalty in California is also expected to be on the November ballot. Its passage would save taxpayers $150 million annually, Mecke said.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in Santa Ana ruled in July 2014 that the state’s death penalty system was bogged down with so many procedural delays that it violated the due process of death row prisoners. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in November.
Since 1978, 900 convicts have been sentenced to death in the state, but 94 of them have died of natural causes in prison and 13 have been executed.
The last execution carried out in California was in 2006. Executions have been put on hold because of a 9th Circuit ruling requiring a medical professional to administer lethal injection drugs.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said the issue of changing the state’s death penalty procedures is a personal one to law enforcement personnel.
“There are 43 convicted cop killers on death row, so this is deeply personal to us,” Dominguez said.
“We hope this initiative will streamline the appeals process so that at least within our lifetime justice is done. The killer has rights, too, but this initiative does nothing to erode the constitutional rights afforded all of us.”
—City News Service
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