A majority of Californians still favor the death penalty, but their support has waned from 79% to 66% over the last two decades as fears of executing the wrongly convicted escalate, a researcher reported Tuesday.
The survey conducted by Craig Haney, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor and lawyer, also showed that most Californians erroneously believe that it costs taxpayers less to execute condemned prisoners than to keep them locked up for life.
In California, it costs $138,000 a year to incarcerate each of San Quentin State Prison's 685 death row inmates, nearly three times the non-capital inmate cost, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The average stay on death row is 25 years and growing as legal challenges have kept executions on hold for 3 1/2 years and limited the number to 13 since capital punishment was restored in 1976.
"My sense is that the whole issue of the death penalty is much more unsettled now than it has been in the past 20 or so years," said Haney, citing growing public discomfort with incidents in which innocent prisoners have been spared at the last minute -- or not at all.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to halt an execution in Georgia and give convicted murderer Troy Davis a chance to prove his innocence after seven witnesses recanted their testimony against him. In May, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote an impassioned opinion warning that "California may be about to execute an innocent man," after the court denied a final appeal to Kevin Cooper despite lingering questions about the credibility of evidence tying him to four murders in Chino Hills in 1983.
The latest issue of the New Yorker magazine suggests that Texas may become the first state to concede having executed an innocent man in the 2004 lethal injection of Cameron Todd Willingham. He was convicted of killing his three children by burning the house down, an act investigators now doubt was arson.
In his study, Haney also found a sharp decline in respondents who consider the death penalty a deterrent. While 74% thought it had deterrent value in Haney's analogous 1989 survey, that was down to 44% this year.
Another important shift in public opinion, he said, has been a rise in the number of people who believe that sentencing a murderer to life without the possibility of parole really means imprisonment until death. Support for the death penalty plunged to 26% when respondents were offered the alternative of guaranteed life imprisonment and the requirement that the offender work to pay restitution to victims and their families, Haney said.
Those who advocate retaining the death penalty argue that support for capital punishment has been stable in recent years, that only the interpretation of survey data is changing.
"There hasn't been any major falloff," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which takes a conservative stance on penal issues.
"If you look at the polls and analyze them properly you'll see that over the past 10 years support has been remarkably steady," he said.
Haney's findings were consistent with those of last month's Field Poll of the California electorate, in which 67% of respondents expressed support for the death penalty.
The professor queried 800 jury-eligible Californians in February and March for his survey. It was funded by the National Jury Project and carried out by the Survey Research Center at the University of Virginia, with a 3.5% margin of error.
Asked if he had a personal opinion about the death penalty, Haney said his 30 years of work in the field had led him to the conclusion that capital punishment "is unnecessary and cannot be properly, fairly or effectively implemented."
"That's not a position I started with, but a position I came to in the course of my research," he said.