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Californians' support for death penalty goes against trend

California's recent vote to continue the death penalty keeps it in the minority of states with capital punishment still on the books.

December 30, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • The witness room at San Quentin prison, where victims' relatives and others would observe executions by lethal injection. A federal judge in 2006 blocked executions in California after determining that the state’s method of execution posed risks that the condemned could suffer inhumanely. Subsequently, the state modified its lethal injection protocol, but a state judge blocked the new one on the grounds that California had not complied with public review requirements.
The witness room at San Quentin prison, where victims' relatives… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Even as Californians voted to maintain the death penalty, the nation's support for capital punishment continued to wane in 2012, with relatively few states performing executions.

Only nine states executed inmates in 2012, and three-fourths of the executions occurred in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a monitoring group critical of capital punishment. Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish capital punishment.

California, whose voters rejected a November ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, is not expected to resume executions for three years, according to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Litigation has blocked executions in California for nearly seven years.

Despite its unused execution chamber, California's death row, already the largest in the nation, continued to swell in 2012. Fourteen inmates were added, mostly from Los Angeles and Riverside counties.


FOR THE RECORD:
Death penalty: In the Dec. 31 LATExtra section, a headline with a story about the death penalty said that California was among a minority of states with capital punishment still on the books. The death penalty is in effect in 33 states, a majority.

Nationally, there were fewer than 80 new death sentences, the second-lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the center said.

Florida led the country with 21 new death sentences. Following California were Texas, with nine, and Pennsylvania, with seven. Those four states accounted for almost 65% of the 2012 death sentences, the center said.

"The big picture is a declining use or less support for the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the death penalty center.

Even California's vote on the death penalty contained some good news for foes of capital punishment. Nearly half the voters — 48% — favored repeal, despite the state's long-standing support for capital punishment.

Dieter said capital sentences in the United States have dropped 75% since their high point in 1996, a trend he attributed to concerns about executing the innocent and the relatively high cost of administering capital punishment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said the numbers show that the use of capital punishment has "plateaued."

"A lot of people who would support the death penalty generally are weary of the battle and think it won't actually be enforced," Scheidegger said.

California's death penalty supporters are mulling over the possibility of launching a ballot initiative that would speed up legal review of death sentences. "Probably the most important thing looking forward is to get the logjam broken," Scheidegger said.

California's logjam stems from court rulings.

A federal judge in 2006 blocked executions after determining that the state's method of execution posed risks that inmates could suffer inhumanely. After that ruling, the state tinkered with its lethal injection protocol. A state judge then blocked the new protocol on the grounds that California had not complied with public review requirements.

The state is now considering using a single drug to execute inmates, a prospect that capital punishment supporters say would speed up executions. Pentobarbital, a barbiturate, is considered by many to be the drug of choice.

All of the states that executed killers in 2012 did so with pentobarbital, which has been used to euthanize animals. When administered on its own, the drug may cause jerking motions and snoring and take more than 10 minutes to end life.

Although the death penalty center anticipates that more states will repeal capital punishment, Scheidegger said he believes the country will continue to execute criminals.

"I see it as here for a long time, although I think it is important to get enforcement restarted," he said. "If the other side succeeds in obstructing enforcement, then the number who say, 'Why bother? We are not enforcing it anyway' may increase."

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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