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SAFE California: The political battle over a ballot initiative that would end capital punishment in California is centered on victims

Linda Webb (right) was the maid of honor at her sister's wedding. Webb was killed by a gunman in 2011. Her sister does not want the death penalty for the killer.
Linda Webb (right) was the maid of honor at her sister's wedding. Webb was killed by a gunman in 2011. Her sister does not want the death penalty for the killer.
Courtesy of Bethany Webb

Laura Webb was murdered in the most deadly shooting in Orange County history, the Seal Beach hair salon rampage that left nine dead in October of 2011. Her sister, Bethany Webb, recently told assembled reporters that she can't even say the name of the man, Scott Dekraai, who's accused in the massacre. 

"I'd appreciate it if no one did," she said. "It just happened. I'm still raw."

The trial in the case is set for October, but that delay is the least of her worries. Already having been to court seven times, Webb said she has 25 years of trials, testimony, and appeals in front of her. That's because the prosecutor in the case said he plans to seek the death penalty for the man accused of murdering Laura and eight others, and seriously wounding Webb's mother, who was getting her hair done by her daughter when the gunman opened fire. 

"You can do me and families of all the innocent the courtesy of passing the SAFE California Act," she told the crowd outside the state building in downtown L.A. 

Webb was speaking as part of an event organized by the SAFE California campaign. The campaign is on an ambitious quest: abolishing the death penalty in California, a state that has repeatedly punished politicians who take on the issue. Organizers, however, seem confident that times have changed in the state that famously voted out former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird for overturning death sentences. The initiative will be on the November ballot and interestingly, its campaign takes a few plays from the opponents' book. Mainly, highlighting law enforcement and crime victims at the masthead of the media campaign. For the past couple of decades, California penal politics have been dominated by a few interest groups: the district attorneys associations, some law enforcement unions (like the California Correctional Police Officers Association), and victims rights groups.

That last group, especially, has acted as the moral authority and the public face for policies like Three Strikes, the Crime Victims Bill of Rights, and post-release restrictions on sex offenders. 

It's not hard to imagine why the stories of victims hold a lot of sway with lawmakers and with voters. The punishment system is intended to give victims recourse and closure. When those victimized by crimes call for retribution, it's hard for lawmakers to put other intended outcomes of the penal system — like balancing the safety benefits of long sentences with the social costs — above the perceived desires of victims. And for a long time, the more or less official voice of crime victims in the state — Crime Victims United of California — has been focused on retribution. 

Harriet Salarno and her daughter, Nina Salarno-Ashford, lead Crime Victims United, and you'll notice at least one of them quoted in literally thousands of news articles, mainly providing the voice of the victims' community when it comes to deciding whether to pass tougher sentencing laws. 

The Salarnos lost Catina Rose Salarno, Harriet's daughter, when her high school boyfriend stalked and killed her when she left for college. The murderer received a sentence of 17 years to life in prison, and periodically comes up for parole. Since then, the family has joined with other groups formed by victims of horrendous crimes (like the Sharon Tate Foundation and Polly Klaas Foundation) to argue for tougher sentences. 

Critics of Crime Victims United have often pointed out to media that these groups represent specific individuals, and question whether they can speak for all crime victims. Particulary when statistics say that many victims of violent crimes in California are members of ethnic minorities. (For instance, the homicide rate for blacks in California is about 11 times that of whites. Crime Victims United, and its partner organizations are overwhelmingly white.)

Now, SAFE California is trying to complicate that voice. They're pushing the idea that rather than benefitting those left behind in the wake of violent crimes, the death penalty hurts victims who are seeking justice and closure. 

Along with Bethany Webb, a number of crime victims are adding their voices to the anti-death penalty cause. There's Aba Gayle, whose daughter was murdered at 19. Her killer was sent to Death Row. Gayle eventually wrote to him and ended up meeting him. Gayle says she realized the murderer had also lost family to violence. Gayle said after that, her rage over her daughter's death dissipated and she decided to devote her time to ending the death penalty.

"Do not tell me the death penalty will bring me 'closure,'" she said. "And most important of all, do not tarnish the memory of my beautiful child."

The Salarnos, meanwhile, are actively fighting the ballot initiative that, if passed, would end California's death penalty and replace it with life without parole. Harriet Salarno, when asked about SAFE California's campaign strategy, said she didn't want to criticize the victims who are against capital punishment. 

But, she said, "they're very much in the minority" and don't represent most crime victims. "I've been through this before," she said. As for life without parole, "there are no guarantees," Salarno said. The crime vicitms allying themselves with SAFE California "just don't understand what could happen."