California's death penalty on track to survive vote, get streamlined

California Counts

Early returns Tuesday night showed California voters leaning toward rejecting Proposition 62 — an effort to end capital punishment in the state — and narrowly approving a competing measure that would streamline executions.

Before the election, backers and opponents of both Propositions 62 and 66 agreed that California’s death penalty system was broken. Although nearly 900 death sentences have been handed down since California reinstated the capital punishment in 1978, there have been just 13 executions.

Legal appeals had already dragged on for decades when federal Judge Jeremy Fogel put a stop to executions in 2006. There hasn’t been one since, and California’s death row population has grown to 750.

Proposition 62 proponents argued the system was irreparably broken and couldn’t — or shouldn’t — be fixed. They banked on convincing voters that life sentences are a solid alternative to the rare execution, while sweetening the measure with a requirement that death row inmates work and pay restitution to their victims.

The campaign to end capital punishment raised more than $16 million, led by the Fund for Policy Reform and wealthy entrepreneurs, including Tom Steyer, Stanford professor Nicholas McKeown, Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, and venture capitalist John Doerr.

Not to be outdone, the campaign to keep and quicken California death sentences raised more than $13 million, with major contributions from law enforcement organizations like the Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen.

Proposition 66 supporters adopted the motto “mend it, don’t end it” in hopes of preserving a death sentence for the most heinous crimes.

Support for capital punishment has been slipping in California for years, especially when voters are given the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole, but a similar effort to repeal the death penalty fell short in 2012, when California voters rejected Proposition 34 by 52 to 48 percent.

Backers of Proposition 62, led by Hollywood actor Mike Farrell and San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, felt the time was right to try again. They hoped to benefit from a relatively low crime rate, a large voter turnout and an influx of younger voters who generally oppose capital punishment.

Both races were close Tuesday evening, and there’s still a possibility that voters will reject both measures. That would mean accepting a dysfunctional status quo, where death sentences occasionally are handed down but no condemned inmates are executed. And that wouldn’t change until the state adopts a new lethal injection protocol that the courts accept.