The Future of California’s Death Penalty Up to Voters

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SACRAMENTO — Californians face a historic life-or-death decision on the November ballot.

Critics of California’s death penalty policy agree the system is broken and something’s got to change.

However, two very different solutions are up for vote — abolish the death penalty and commute the sentences of hundreds of killers on death row? Or speed up the decades-long process from conviction to execution?

For the first time this November, voters will be able to weigh in on these dueling death penalty initiatives on the same ballot.

The men and women on California’s death row have taken the lives of 1,000 victims, including over 200 children and more than 40 law enforcement officers, with nearly 300 victims raped and tortured as part of their deaths.

The state hasn’t carried out a death sentence in a decade, leaving 747 men and women awaiting execution.

Sandy Friend has thought about one of them every day for the last 17 years.

Twenty years after her son, Michael Lyons, was kidnapped just blocks from his Yuba City home, Sandy still struggles to speak the details of what followed.

“He tortured him, and he raped him and he inflicted 70, 80 stab wounds — not one intended to kill him,” she said.

But after 10 hours, the third grader did die. The man responsible is Robert Rhoades. At the time, he was a repeat sex offender and now twice-convicted murderer. He was sentenced to death by a Sacramento County jury in 1999.

“Why can’t we just execute him?” Friend asked.

Because Rhoades is still appealing his death sentence and, in California, that process is not quick.

Joining Friend in her frustration are people with two different campaigns to changes California’s death penalty law. Both agreeing the system is inefficient, expensive and cruel to victims.

“The harm and grief that we’ve caused upon victims, people we wanted to protect, we actually ended up hurting them worse,” former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs said.

“The leading cause of death on death row is not the executioner. It’s old age, death by natural cause of old age, when they have done extraordinary, unfathomable things to people,” former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said.

But those men have very different ideas about what that change should be. McGinness supports the death penalty.

“It’s a necessary evil,” McGinness said.

He backs the California Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act, aimed to speed up the time from conviction to execution. The initiative focuses largely on the courts, imposing new requirements and deadlines to resolve appeals more quickly — saying a fair review of the cases can happen within 10 years. Supporters say the current process is intentionally bogged down by death penalty opponents who don’t want executions carried out.

“When you have a death penalty that is so compromised by onerous regulation that seeks, that exists simply for the purpose of making it not workable, you have to clean that up,” he said.

It also allows the Department of Corrections to keep condemned inmates in less expensive, non-death row housing until their execution date and requires inmates to work and pay restitution to their victims.

“It epitomizes a reasonable solution versus what has been developed in the state as of now, that frankly is void of reasonability,” McGinness told FOX40.

Briggs has less optimistic view of the possibilities for the death penalty in California. And he should know. In the late 1970s, he helped his father, then-state Senator John Briggs craft the current death penalty law.

“We wanted to make a model for all the nation and instead we tripled the population of death row,” Briggs said.

Since that law took effect, the state has carried out only 13 death sentences. Polling over the last 40 years shows Californians’ support for the death penalty ebbing and flowing. Yet even at its lowest point in 2014, Field Poll Online reports 56 percent of Californians supported the death penalty.

Briggs, a former El Dorado County supervisor, supports the Justice that Works Initiative. It’s a ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty and commute the currently condemned inmates’ sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He first makes a fiscal case.

“Imagine a government program that spends $287 million a year and absolutely nothing gets done, and the money’s being spent on lawyers and criminals,” he said. “What would you do with that program?”

Then, he makes a moral case, saying the years of appeals wreak havoc on victims’ lives. There are also the lives of the condemned. Convicted by the public, yes, but the system is not perfect.

In California, there have been three death row inmates whose convictions were overturned after years on death row. Briggs fears potential exonerees will be overlooked if the proposed reform measure speeding up appeals passes.

“Checks and balances are in place, because we’re dealing with a person’s life,” Briggs said. “Acceleration is not the answer.”

An analysis by California’s Legislative Affairs Office estimates repealing the death penalty would save about $150 million a year.

The same office found that to reform and speed up the death penalty process would potentially cost the court system tens of millions a year but save the prison system tens of millions a year.

A Field Poll taken in January shows Californians split on the opposing death penalty initiatives
with 48 percent favoring speeding up the execution process and 47 percent of registered voters favoring abolishment of the death penalty. Five percent are undecided.

Meanwhile, executions in California have been on hold for a decade while the state develops a new lethal injection protocol. That process may soon be winding down. However, there are still no planned execution dates.

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