Moral Low Ground

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‘The Moral High Ground’: Measure to Abolish California Death Penalty Qualifies for November Ballot

A measure that would end capital punishment in California has qualified for this November’s ballot.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the measure, if passed, would make California the 18th state in the nation without a death penalty. In the past five years, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, New York and Connecticut have all abolished capital punishment.

November’s ballot measure would commute the death sentences of the more than 700 death row inmates to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The vast majority of death row inmates would be incarcerated among general prison populations, where they would have to work and pay their earnings as restitution to their victims.

The abolition measure has the support of not only Democrats and progressives, but many Republicans as well. Among them are Ron Briggs, who was instrumental in passing Proposition 7, which reinstated the death penalty in California in 1978, and Donald J. Heller, who wrote the 1978 measure. Both men say that doing so was among the biggest mistakes of their lives.

Other conservative death penalty opponents include Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions, and former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, whose experiences in that office opened his eyes to the injustice inherent in the capital punishment system.

Former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George and current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, both Republicans, have also publicly expressed that the state’s capital punishment system is broken.

Californians have historically been very strong supporters of capital punishment. Since 2000, support for executions has hovered around 70% in the state. But even if Californians have few moral objections to state-sanctioned homicide against convicted murderers, fiscal objections may just push enough voters to cast “yes” votes on abolition.

The results of a three-year study by a judge and a law professor found that California’s death penalty costs $183 million more than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The state’s 13 executions since reinstatement have cost taxpayers a whopping $4 billion. That’s a staggering $308 million per execution.

Add in the fact that California death row inmates are more likely to die of old age than from being executed, and the fact that a federal judge has expressed the possibility that condemned inmates may suffer excruciating pain as a result of the three-drug lethal injection process, and there are even more reasons why voters may want to consider voting in favor of repeal.

Opposition to capital punishment in the United States is often based on the grounds that it is applied disproportionately to the poor and minorities, that legal representation provided to these defendants is often as poor as they are, that the majority of convictions are so flawed that they are overturned, that the system tragically kills innocent people but its appeals process rejects even the strongest proof of a condemned man’s innocence, and that executions have been marred by horrific errors.

The argument that executions deter others from committing crimes is also morally and statistically bankrupt.

Capital punishment has been abolished by every country in the Western world except the United States. The countries which executed the most people in 2010 were: China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria.

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