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Repealing Capital Punishment in California and The Future of the Death Penalty

Posted by Sara Cooper | Aug 31, 2023 | 0 Comments

Advocates for ending capital punishment in the state are pushing to make the temporary freeze on the death penalty permanent as it is impacting almost 700 prisoners.

According to Courthouse News Service, “The Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, a seven-member board formed by the state Legislature last year to propose criminal justice reforms, released a 39-page report recommending that capital punishment be repealed in the Golden State.”

“More than forty years of experience have shown that the death penalty is the opposite of a simple and rational scheme,” the report states. “It has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved and it is imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.”

Through an important panel discussing data on death sentences, it was configured that post-conviction litigation has been an extremely long and costly process.

The report cites staggering racial disparities in who gets sentenced to death, with people of color making up 68% of those on death row in California. It further notes that about a third of condemned prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to figures cited in a federal class action over mental health care in California prisons (Courthouse News Service 2023).

More so, executions sadly do include innocent people, with almost 200 people later exonerated across the country and 5 individuals in California. It's a form of murder that is highlighted as a punishment that is beyond control when it is.

Voters in California have still mostly supported the death penalty twice in the past decade. In 2012, a proposal to abolish the death penalty was defeated by 52% of the vote. In 2016, voters narrowly rejected another proposal to end capital punishment and passed a measure to speed up executions with 51% approval. The accelerated execution law was largely upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2017, according to Courthouse News Service.

In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom enacted a moratorium on executions, citing his belief that capital punishment is morally wrong.

Steve Wagstaffe, District Attorney of San Mateo had been one of the few prosecutors whom were involved in the lawsuit regarding the upholding or Proposition 66, speeding executions in California.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Wagstaffe said he takes no position on whether the death penalty should be repealed in California, but as long as it's on the books, he said the law should be defended and that his office will enforce it.

“If it is the law, then my duty is to uphold the law,” Wagstaffe said. “But if they change the law, that's what democracy is all about.”

Other than extreme purposes, Wagstaffe hopes to never go through the process of capital punishment such as one as the result of the Oklahoma City bombing.

“I still think there are certain cases where I would want to bring it to a jury and let the jury decide if that's an appropriate punishment,” Wagstaffe said.

Prosecutors from counties of Los Angeles, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, and San Francisco had teamed up and are known as Prosecutors Alliance of California in order to advocate for criminal justice reform including ending capital punishment.

According to Courthouse News Service, “The group's executive director, Cristine Soto DeBerry, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she supports the panel's recommendation to repeal the death penalty.”

Discussing about the death penalty, DeBerry had mentioned studies that deterrence is not effective against murder, and capital punishment is a financial punishment itself for the state.

“We'd be wiser to use the resources that support the death penalty to support victims and prevent violent crime from happening in the first place,” DeBerry said.

23 states and the District of Columbia have gotten rid of the death penalty in their own states and provinces. California is one of the three states that currently has a moratorium. In July, the Biden Administration had suggested a temporary stay on executions for the whole country..

In its report, the panel acknowledged that ending capital punishment in California “is a difficult goal” so it laid out several recommended steps that can be taken in the interim. Those steps include having the governor grant clemency to commute death sentences, having the attorney general settle pending legal challenges against death sentences and having county district attorneys recall death penalty cases for resentencing (Courthouse News Service 2023).

The report is filled with reforms that would impact those involved in the criminal justice system, including a law change that would permit accomplices to be sentenced to death even if they were not involved in the actual action of murder but took part of a felony that involves the process. Another policy change that was recommended in the report would be a law made in 202 that ban convictions based on race, one that would allow judges to be discretionary in taking away components of death penalty cases and make a requirement for those mentally incompetent to be permanently disqualified from being on death row.

Governor Newsom's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who has publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment, said, "We look forward to reviewing the report and continuing to engage with the committee in its important work on behalf of the State of California."

Members of the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code include chairman Michael Romano of Stanford Law School, Assembly member Alex Lee of San Jose, state Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza, retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, retired California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno and professor Priscilla Ocen of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

According to Courthouse News Service, the state currently has 697 inmates on death row. California has carried out 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. The most recent execution of Clarence Ray Allen took place in 2006.

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