California’s Death Penalty – On The Way Out?

13 Nov

The death penalty is currently a legal sentence in 37 states in the USA (as well as in the federal criminal justice system). The list of states which retain the death penalty includes America’s most populous state, California. When America voted to re-elect President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, the state of California also voted to retain the death penalty.

Voters rejected Proposition 34, an initiative which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, albeit by a narrow margin. While 52.8% voted to keep the death penalty, 47.2% voted to abolish it. Proposition 34 also required inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole to work to enable them to pay restitution to victims’ families. It also allocate approximately $30 million per year for three years to police departments, specifically to solve murder and rape cases which remained open. However, the measure was still unsuccessful.

While on the face of it this is a vote for the death penalty, it nevertheless may be indicative of a broader trend of changing attitudes to capital punishment throughout America. When voters expressed a view on capital punishment in California some 34 years earlier, some 71% supported the death penalty.

Legal executions in have been undertaken in California since they first authorised under the state’s Criminal Practices Act of 1851 (with a brief hiatus from 1972 to 1976). Since then, executions have been undertaken by firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. Since 1993, the preferred method of execution has been lethal injection.

In recent years, however, California’s use of the death penalty is gradually declining. While there are currently 726 inmates on the state’s Death row (which makes it the largest death row in America), the reality is that no prisoner has actually been executed since 2006.California accommodates almost a quarter of the entire death row population in America. It is also noteworthy that figures from the  National Registry of Exonerations confirm that California tops the list of states with wrongful convictions.

Executions were suspended in California in February, 2006 as a result of a federal judge concluding that the state’s execution process was flawed

A condemned prisoner had argued that inadequate training for those administering the death penalty and the poor conditions in the death chamber at San Quentin prison amounted to a “cruel and unusual punishment”. ( The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution lays down that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted”. TNew procedures were drafted by the California Department of Corrections, and the death chamber was revamped, but the moratorium is due to continue for another year.

A total of 13 people convicted of murder have been executed by the state of California following the resumption of capital punishment after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gregg v. Georgia. In 11 of these cases, the method of execution has been lethal injection. The problematic nature of the administration of the death penalty in California is underlined by records of how prisoners on death row have died since 1976:

  • 57 condemned prisoners have died from natural causes
  • 20 condemned prisoners have committed suicide
  • 6 condemned prisoners have died from “other causes”
  • 13 condemned prisoners have actually been executed in California (11 by lethal injection, and two by gas)

The reality, then, is that more prisoners on death row have died from natural causes or from suicide than from the death penalty.

Current opponents of the death penalty in California have located their arguments in the context of the current fiscal austerity. It is estimated that California has spent some $4 billion on the administration of the death penalty since capital punishment resumed in 1977. The state now has an annual expenditure of approximately $184 million on the death penalty. The cost of legal representation, special trials and death row accommodation continues to rise. It is estimated that it will cost a further $1 billion over the next 5 years. It is a continuing paradox that, while millions of dollars are spent on the death penaly each years, the reality is that more death row prisoners die of old age than die due to leathal injection.

Those called upon to administer the death penalty have recorded the immense psychological stresses which it places upon them. One former executioner has spoken of he finally sought help after seeing the dead men he executed sitting on the side of his bed at night.

While it appears that the popular support for the death penalty is California is gradually being eroded, it is also clear that it may take some time for the tipping point in electoral support which will lead to the abolition of the death penalty to be reached.

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