(Mint Press)— The SAFE California Act, a citizen led ballot initiative that has gathered more than the minimum 500,000 petition signatures needed to be placed on the ballot, could abolish the death penalty in California this November making it the sixth state since 2007 to end capital punishment. If successful, the proposed California act could give momentum to activists pushing other states to abandon the controversial practice.
Since 1978, California has executed 13 people and currently has more than 700 people on death row. While the death penalty debate remains a divisive legal issue with mixed public opinion, a recent push by abolitionists seems to be gaining national momentum as Connecticut recently became the 17th state to end capital punishment.
Critics of California’s death penalty often cite the exorbitant cost of $4 billion dollars spent since 1978 with virtually no decreases in murder rates. The exhaustive appeals process for death row inmates sometimes leads to executions a decade or more after sentencing—placing a tremendous burden on the courts.
In 1978 California resident Don Heller wrote the state’s current death penalty law with the assistance of Ron Briggs. Today, the two who were among the most ardent supporters of the death penalty have become signatories of the SAFE California pledge. Both have joined the abolition camp, calling the death penalty, “a colossal failure” in California.
Reflecting on the troubling history of the death penalty in California, Briggs writes in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed,
“Each of us remains a staunch Republican conservative, but our perspectives on the death penalty have changed. 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.”
Nationally, the public debate as to whether the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as defined by the 8th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, has been expanded to include a more nuanced discourse on the problematic and often inconsistent application of this controversial punishment.
Before the founding of the U.S., territories were carrying out executions against convicted criminals. The death penalty, while almost solely reserved for murderers today, was applied broadly to those convicted of: rape, treason, kidnapping, robbery, and even witchcraft as early as 1608.
Executions in the U.S. continued virtually unabated until the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia. The ruling created a brief, de facto moratorium on executions. The decision caused California to commute the sentences of 107 inmates on death row. Although California later reinstated the death penalty following the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision (which reversed the previous 1972 ban) California did not carry out its next execution until 1992.
The Push for Abolition
Chief among the concerns for abolitionists is the inconsistent and often unequal use of the death penalty as it is applied in cases that involve defendants of color, namely African Americans and Latinos.
The controversial execution of Troy Davis sparked a national outcry for abolition among disparate human rights and legal activist groups opposed to the death penalty. Davis, an African-American, was convicted of the 1989 killing a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. In the years following his conviction, 7 of the 9 witnesses recanted their testimonies, causing many to question the flawed trial and dubious guilt of the accused.
Over 660,000 people signed an Amnesty International petition calling for Davis’ sentence to be commuted, including: Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Al Sharpton, former President Jimmy Carter, and a number of European Parliamentarians. Despite the popular pressure, appeals for clemency were denied and Davis was executed on September 21, 2011.
Other cases, like that of Mumia Abu-Jamal, have become a cause celebre of the abolition movement and continually spark heated public debate about the morality and application of the death penalty. Abu-Jamal, a journalist and Black Panther member was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was on death row from 1981 until January 2012 when his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
On Tuesday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Department of Justice and the White House in Washington D.C. to demand Mumia’s release. Protests in solidarity with Abu-Jamal have become regular national events, with Tuesday’s demonstration coinciding with Abu-Jamal’s 58th birthday. Supporters maintain that Abu-Jamal, like many inmates of color, is the victim of a discriminatory justice system.
The claim, it seems, is not an unfounded one. According to a 2007 report sponsored by the American Bar Association, one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment had they not been African-American.
Opponents of the death penalty also criticize the ambiguous 2002 Atkins v. Virginia Supreme Court decision. The 6-3 ruling determined that states are forbidden from executing mentally retarded criminals since this would constitute a cruel and unusual punishment for someone that does not have the mental cognition to understand right from wrong.
The ruling, however, allowed individual states to determine the benchmarks for sufficient mental impairment. This, many argue, has lead to a number of inconsistent applications of the ruling. Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia have all executed people with I.Q. scores as low as 59 while California courts disqualified a man with an I.Q. of 86, declaring him “mentally retarded” and unfit for execution.
Support for the Death Penalty
Despite the opposition by critics who cite inconsistent and sometimes discriminatory use of the death penalty, the majority of Americans continue to support the practice.
According to an October, 2012 Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. While support remains strong nationwide, this represents a 3 percent decrease from the 64 percent supporting the death penalty last year. Reasons for supporting the death penalty vary with many believing in a retributive, exacting view of justice in which the punishment is fitting of the crime (see Hammurabi’s ‘eye for an eye’). Others support executions with a more forward looking, deterrent view of justice, believing that executions dissuade would be killers from committing future crimes.
While previous studies have produced mixed, uncertain results as to whether executions produce any deterrent effect, a 2008 opinion poll conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 88 percent of criminologists did not believe that the death penalty was an effective deterrent in preventing would be criminals from carrying out murder.
California, a Harbinger of Things to Come?
In California, previous ballot initiatives supporting the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage were defeated, prompting some to question whether this initiative will garner enough support come November. However, citizen sponsored ballot initiatives encourage direct participatory democracy and a California vote could be a harbinger of things to come for the United States.
California has not executed a criminal since 2006, when then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency to Clarence Ray Allen, a convicted murderer of American Indian descent. Executions in California have become exceedingly rare, but November’s vote in the most populous U.S. state may be a good barometer of where the nation is headed vis-a-vis capital punishment.
Currently, the U.S. is among a diminishing minority of countries worldwide that still carry out executions. With 43 executions in 2011, the United States is among the world leaders on the short-list of mostly non-democratic, authoritarian countries. Only 5 countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq had more executions in 2011 according to Amnesty International’s annual Death Sentences and Executions report.
The United States is the only member of the G8 (Group of right strongest economic powers) that continues to execute criminals. While there are still 33 states that allow executions, a vote for abolition in California could give the momentum needed to push for similar legislation in other states, and perhaps on a national level.