Death penalty could go before California voters in November

Judge LaDoris Cordell (at podium) and other SAFE California members present the signatures needed for a vote on ending execution
Steven T. Jones

It appears that California voters will get a chance to abolish the death penalty this November, and that supporters of the proposed ballot measure will use mostly fiscal and public safety arguments to pick away at the majority of state residents that polls have shown still support capital punishment.

The group SAFE (which stands for Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement) California this morning held press conferences in San Francisco and three other cities to announce that it is turning in more than 800,000 voter signatures (504,764 are needed) to qualify a measure that would make life in prison without the possibility of parole the maxiumum sentence in California. It would also spare the 720 inmates now on death row in San Quentin Prison, converting their sentences to life in prison.

“We make history today. This is the first time that voters in California will have the opportunity to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole,” LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, said at San Francisco City Hall.

She was flanked by Sups. Scott Wiener and Christina Olague and other supporters of the measure, as well to two visuals showing a county-by-county breakdown of the unsolved homicides and rapes in California. San Francisco ranks near the top in both categories, with 58 percent of murders (450) and 70 percent of reported rapes (1,236) going unsolved between 2000 and 2009.

“The money to catch these murderers and rapists is not there because it is on death row,” Cordell said, noting that the state wastes an estimated $184 million per year on capital punishment, a figure that represents the roughly $100,000 more per year it costs to house someone on death row versus in the normal prison population and the cost of lifetime legal representation and appeals to which condemned prisoners are entitled.

They argue that in a cash-strapped state, that money could be put to better use solving crimes and supplementing police budgets, with Wiener calling for state residents “to be rational in our approach to public safety and end the death penalty in California.”

Most studies on capital punishment have shown that it does not act as a crime deterrent and that it does not save money, so most arguments supporting it have been emotional ones offered by grieving families or law enforcement officials describing the heinous details of crimes. 

SAFE California seemed to be trying to preempt those appeals with speeches in San Francisco by three other supporters of the measure: Jeanne Woodford, the former San Quentin warden who now runs Death Penalty Focus; Obie Anthony, who was wrongfully accused of murder and exonerated last year after serving 17 years in prison; and Deldelp Medina, whose aunt was murdered by her cousin during a psychotic breakdown and faced capital punishment.

Woodford oversaw four executions at San Quentin and said she and other corrections workers were plagued by the questions of whether the person they were executing was innocent and whether state-sanctioned killing was really making the world safer: “No public employee should ever carry that burden, because I can tell you the system is flawed.”

Many studies have shown the criminal justice system is often biased against African Americans like Anthony. “At the age of 19, I was charged and faced with a murder I did not commit,” said Anthony, who was convicted based on eyewitness testimony of a pimp who later admitted that he was lying to get leniency in his own criminal charges, a deal with police that jurors never learned about.

“I’m living proof that terrible mistakes can happen and there is no perfect system,” Anthony said.

Medina told another story common to California’s flawed justice system, that of overzealous prosecutors seeking to appear tough, often for political reasons, being matched against overburdened public defenders who often lack the resources to properly defend poor people accused of serious crimes.

She noted how the death penalty gets “trotted out as a show pony in every election cycle” by politicians using the families of crime victims. But the reality is that vengeance isn’t a healthy emotion, and she said that capital punishment does little to heal a family’s pain: “The death penalty is an empty promise to the families of victims.”

Cordell said that capital punishment, which often takes 25 years to occur once all the appeals are exhausted, simply prolongs the survivors’ pain. “A quarter of a century is not justice for these families,” she said. And with the high cost of capital punishment exacerbating government funding shortfalls and inherent flaws in the court system, she said, “Justice in our criminal justice system is in grave peril.”   


death penalty. Maybe not in SF but we are only about 2% of the population of CA and so not that relevant overall.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

When paired as a choice between DP and LWOP, it's about 50-50 last time I looked. Still, I don't think it's enough to pass this time. LE will throw lots of money to make sure it doesn't pass. We'll get there someday, though.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

BTW, perusing the SAFE California press pack from today's event, there is a joint statement supporting the measure signed by 114 current and former law enforcement officers, include SF DA George Gascon, Alameda prosecutor Sharmin Bock (who challenged Gascon last year), and former Sheriff Michael Hennessey. I think this measure will divide California's law enforcement community, but I agree that the major police associations will probably oppose it, good ole boys that they are.

PS: Neither Police Chief Greg Suhr nor Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi are on that list yet

Posted by steven on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

Yes, that's what the polls have shown, as I wrote in my lede (I even included a link). That's one reason why it will be interesting to see whether the campaign for this measure, and the fiscal and public safety arguments that it makes, will sway public opinion. This hasn't been a high-profile issue with the general public in awhile, so I'll be curious what happens after the arguments are made and voters are formally asked this life-or-death question.

Posted by steven on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

By 2:1, CA Voters Back Death Penalty: 61% of registered voters from the state of California say they would vote to keep the death penalty, should a death penalty initiative appear on the November 2012 ballot, according to this latest SurveyUSA poll conducted exclusively for KGTV-TV San Diego, KPIX-TV San Francisco, KFSN-TV Fresno, and KABC-TV Los Angeles. 29% say they would vote to eliminate the death penalty. Keeping the death penalty law in California is supported by a majority among all groups except liberals, who are divided.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 11:47 am

but I can see the arguments on the other side too. At this point I'm undecided how I'll vote. Since those opposed to the death penalty have made sure it's so rarely applied in CA - it were gone it wouldn't matter anyway.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

while complaining that it is so expensive.

Not so bothered by the death penalty going away, more bothered about the sleazy antics of those opposed.

Posted by matlock on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

Their goal is to make it so difficult to get an abortion that people will just give up. The anti-tobacco people have followed the same policy. Anti-death penalty activists use the same tactics.

It's using the law as a coercive force to force societal change. The left is as bad on this count as the right.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

So called pro lifers have spent millions forcing the pro choice types and various levels of government into defending abortion.

The anti abortion and anti death penalty types have driven up the cost, and then complained about the costs.

Posted by matlock on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

So the condemned shouldn't have a right to legal counsel and appeals? You are aware that DNA testing has shown that hundreds of people in this country have been falsely convicted, right? And that eyewitness testimony has proven notoriously unreliable? And that cops and prosecutors are often more motivated to close a case than to find the person who actually did it, particularly in the most heinous crimes where public outrage is the highest? It's awfully convenient to blame death penalty foes for the costs of due process before killing someone, but most of those costs come from caselaw derived from basic constitutional rights, not the progressives that you're always looking for any excuse to bash. Honestly, Matlock, sometimes it seems like you've just emerged from living in a cave since the '50s. Your kneejerk responses are ridiculously predictible, and usually just ridiculous.

Posted by steven on Mar. 02, 2012 @ 11:29 am

The arguments in support of the ballot measure to abolish the death penalty are exaggerated at best and, in most cases, misleading and erroneous. The Act would only make our prisons less safe for both other prisoners and prison officials, significantly increase the costs to taxpayers due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time. Bottom line, the “SAFE” Act is an attempt by those who are responsible for the high costs and lack of executions to now persuade voters to abandon it on those ground. Obviously, these arguments would disappear if the death penalty was carried forth in accordance with the law. Get the facts at and supporting evidence at

Posted by CBernstien on Jun. 10, 2012 @ 10:00 am

Wow I was surprised to see that the death penalty is still in California, one of if not the most progressive states in the country. Aside from the moral reasons for not having the death penalty (Michigan knew it was wrong 150 years ago!) the costs are staggering. Longer sentences and the threat of the death penalty don't necessarily suppress crime rates. Look at the safest countries in the world - they have the shortest sentences. In any event I am pleased to see this is a ballot issue and fell that everyone in favour should reconsider.

Posted by Jeff on Jun. 18, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

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