After months of public signature gathering throughout California by an army of volunteers, petitions with approximately 800,000 signatures were delivered to County Departments of Elections throughout the state on Thursday morning, including the basement office at San Francisco's City Hall. 504,000 valid signatures are required to place an initiative on the ballot, so this looks like a good bet.
The petition was calling for a vote this November to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment with no chance of parole in the State of California, which had voted in its death penalty statutes via another State initiative in 1977. That effort was sponsored by State Senator John Briggs, the conservative Republican who was advocating for the firing of all gay teachers in public schools during the same period via the infamous Briggs Initiative.
Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris H. Cordell above hosted a press conference explaining the SAFE California campaign which is advocating for the new initiative. The group's approach is smart and focused. Instead of concentrating on the morality of the death penalty, which is not going to convince anyone who believes in severe punishment for terrible crimes, they are pointing out the insanely expensive legal bureaucracy that has been created by California's death penalty statute.
The system has cost California taxpayers about $4 billion since 1978, which works out to about $184 million per Death Row prisoner, and very few of them are even executed. The campaign points out "the vast majority of death row prisoners in California will meet the same fate as those sentenced to permanent imprisonment; they will die in prison despite the extraordinary additional expenses incurred by the taxpayers of California."
An objection might be made by those favoring execution that it is the legal system that needs to be changed so condemned prisoners don't have as many rights, and a production line system of death such as exists in the State of Texas should be established here. Jeanne Woodford, the former Warden of San Quentin above, talked about how poisonous the death row system is for those who work in the prisons, and that "life imprisonment with no chance of parole IS a harsh sentence" and it doesn't put a State employee in the position of having to murder another human being.
Another problem with a Texas style system is that it doesn't seem to care whether it executes innocent people or not, but there are always innocent people who get trapped in the maws of the justice system. Obie Anthony above was just released after 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit and had absolutely nothing to do with, after he was fingered by a pimp who was an informant for the Los Angeles Police Department. (Click here for a jaw-dropping article about his case from the Los Angeles Times.) Somehow Mr. Anthony didn't go insane while spending 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and according to a campaign director, he has been the hardworking star of the signature gathering effort.
Deldelp Medina told the story of her mentally ill nephew who killed his own mother during a psychotic break, and the horror of dealing with a Florida prosecution who were insisting on charging him with the death penalty. (They finally relented after years of work by the extended family.) She pointed out that relatives of murder victims get absolutely no closure from California's death penalty system, since they are called back again and again for every legal appeal, with wounds reopened on each occasion. Life imprisonment would end that agony.
In an amazing development, El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs, the conservative Republican son of John Briggs who helped his father craft the 1977 initiative, has come forward with a public editorial in the Los Angeles Times endorsing the SAFE California campaign, and admitting that they were wrong.
"We'd thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers. Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers. Our initiative was intended to bring about greater justice for murder victims. Never did we envision a multibillion-dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades of extremely expensive incarceration. We thought we would empty death row, not triple its population. Each of us, independently, has concluded that the death penalty isn't working for California."