Crime & Justice

Signature-gathering begins for initiative intended to resume executions in Calif. (updated)

A room where lethal injections are administered at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California.
A room where lethal injections are administered at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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Update 8:24 a.m. Friday: Call for 'common sense' reforms to California's death penalty

Three conservative former governors called for "common sense" reforms to California's death penalty process Thursday.

"Old age should not be the leading cause of death on death row," said former Governor Pete Wilson, flanked in a press conference by former governors Gray Davis and George Deukmejian, along with former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, and current San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos. 

The politicians joined family members of crime victims Thursday to launch a ballot initiative that would change California's constitution and they say, streamline the executions in the state. Davis was the first to sign the proposal, which needs over 800,000 signatures by July 10 to make it to November's ballot.

"This is a chance to fix a system that's been broken far too long," Davis said.

California has executed 13 inmates since restoring capital punishment in 1978. The last execution took place in January 2006. A month later, a federal court stopped executions in California, citing problems with the state's lethal injection process. Since then, a state court has said California will need to rewrite its lethal injection procedure before it resumes putting inmates to death. 

Death penalty proponents have complained that this litigation, along with a lengthy and slow appeals process for death row inmates, has "broken" capital punishment in California. Citing its "unfixable" nature, anti-death penalty advocates floated a ballot initiative, Proposition 34, in 2012 to eliminate the death penalty in California. It failed, garnering 48 percent of the vote.

Davis, Deukmejian, and Wilson said Thursday they'd promised supporters of the death penalty that if the initiative failed, they would fix the system.

The proposed initiative would speed up the appeals process for death row inmates, according to supporters, by allowing lower courts to take cases instead of just the California Supreme Court. It would also allow death row inmates to be housed in the general population and work prison jobs to pay restitution. The initiative would also allow California to rewrite its previously deemed unconstitutional execution procedures without putting them through an administrative review process that includes public input.

"They basically want to write the lethal injection procedure out of the public eye," said Ana Zamora, spokesperson for the SAFE California Coalition, which sponsored Proposition 34. 

Zamora also pointed out that should the initiative pass, California still lacks appropriate drugs to carry out an execution. Many companies that produce drugs in executions have stopped manufacturing them, not wanting to be associated with capital punishment. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that it does not have drugs it would need to carry out an execution.

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, said he's not morally opposed to the death penalty, but sees this initiative as a waste of time and money. He said were the initiative to pass, it would be mired in litigation for years, and wouldn't restart anything.

"They're going to spend millions on this initiative," Garcetti said. "All the while, we're still laying off teachers and police."

Garcetti said the death penalty system in California has no fix. 

"Obviously, this is an emotional issue," he said. "We need to give closure to families of victims. That can be done through life without the possibility of parole."

Death penalty advocates, however, say they can't give up on the punishment, mired as it is in legal entanglements.

"We made a commitment," Ramos said.


A group of former politicians say California's death penalty is broken. They claim to have come up with a way of fixing it and resuming executions that have been on hold for years.

On Thursday, former L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley and former California governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson will begin a signature-gathering campaign in Los Angeles to place a constitutional ballot initiative on the November ballot that they say would allow California to resume carrying out death sentences. Read the summary below.

The ballot measure also seeks to shorten the appeals process for death row inmates.  The initiative was officially filed by ex-NFL player Kermit Alexander – who lost four family members in a shooting in South Central Los Angeles.

There are several groups in California who oppose the death penalty. Besides the moral arguments, they argue it costs far more to execute a person than to keep him or her in prison for life and there is no evidence that it acts as a deterrent to crime.

Related: California voters keep the death penalty, reject Proposition 34

California's last execution took place in January 2006 at San Quentin State Prison, one of the state's oldests and home to the state's male death row. A month later, a federal court put a hold on executions in California hours before Michael Morales was scheduled to be put to death. It wanted to consider Morales' argument that the state's lethal injection protocol violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. In December 2006, the court sided with Morales.

The judge who issued that ruling pointed to numerous issues with California's lethal injection protocol:

Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has made moves to change the execution process. It invested in a new $835,000 lethal injection chamber and rewrote its lethal injection procedure. 

But in May 2013, a state appeals court upheld a lower court's finding that California violated its rule-writing procedures when it came up with the new execution protocol by not adequately considering public comment. In July, CDCR said it was working on a new protocol that involved one drug instead of three; a lethal injection process many consider more humane. Under the current law, that procedure will have to go through a lengthy review process before it can be used to execute anyone.

The proposed constitutional ballot initiative would eliminate the administrative review process and potentially allow the state to resume executions.

To get on the November ballot, the backers need to collect 807,615 signatures of registered voters by July 10. 

Currently, California's death row has 746 inmates. Of them, 20 are women. Demographically, the vast majority fall between the ages of 40-60 years old; 34.8 percent are White, 36.3 percent Black, and 23.6 percent are Hispanic. Nearly a third (31.1 percent) are from Los Angeles County.

On Wednesday, condemned inmate Wilbur Lee Jennings, 73, died of natural causes while awaiting trial for a murder in Sacramento. Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, 63 condemned inmates have died from natural causes, 23 have committed suicide, and 13 have been executed.

Below is a summary of the initiative from California's Secretary of State:

DEATH PENALTY. PROCEDURES. INITIATIVE STATUTORY AND CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.Gives state appellate courts jurisdiction over death penalty appeals, before consideration by California Supreme Court. Changes procedures governing state court petitions challenging death penalty convictions and sentences. Designates superior court for initial petitions and limits successive petitions. Imposes time limits on state court death penalty review. Requires appointed attorneys who take noncapital appeals to accept death penalty appeals. Exempts prison officials from existing regulation process for developing execution methods. Authorizes death row inmate transfers among California state prisons. States death row inmates are required to work and pay victim restitution. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Increased state costs potentially in the tens of millions of dollars annually for several years related to direct appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, with the fiscal impact on such costs being unknown in the long run. Potential state correctional savings in the tens of millions of dollars annually. (13-0055.)