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Former death penalty supporters now working against it

A lawyer, a county supervisor and a retired San Quentin Prison warden are backing Proposition 34, which would make life without possibility of parole California's toughest punishment.

September 23, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Donald Heller wrote the 1978 ballot measure that expanded California's death penalty but now wants to see it abolished. He is backing Proposition 34, which would make life without possibility of parole the state’s toughest punishment.
Donald Heller wrote the 1978 ballot measure that expanded California's… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Donald Heller wrote the 1978 ballot measure that expanded California's death penalty. Ronald Briggs, whose father spearheaded the campaign, worked to achieve its passage. Jeanne Woodford, a career corrections official, presided over four executions.

The lawyer, El Dorado County supervisor and retired San Quentin Prison warden now want California's death penalty abolished, contending the state no longer can afford a system that has cost an estimated $4 billion since 1978 and executed 13 prisoners.

"We started with six people on death row in 1978, and we never thought that there would one day be 729," said Briggs, a conservative Republican. "We never conceived of an appellate process that is decades long."

Backing Proposition 34, which would make life without possibility of parole the state's toughest punishment, the three have joined with retired Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to try to dismantle a system in which each has played a role.

Death penalty supporters concede the system is not working but argue that cost estimates are inflated and that changes in law and court rulings could speed up the process. Mend it, don't end it, the opponents of Proposition 34 argue.

They insist that executions could resume if the state were to move quickly to adopt a one-drug method of lethal injection.

A federal judge in 2006 halted executions out of concern that the state's three-drug method might cause excruciating pain in violation of the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A state judge who examined subsequent revisions to the state's execution method ruled that the required administrative procedures had not been followed.

Although some polls show narrow majorities of Californians prefer life terms to executions, the political odds this November favor supporters of capital punishment, according to analysts. California voters tend to be liberal on candidates but conservative on propositions, passing only about a third of them.

Whatever the outcome, the debate over Proposition 34 has shown that forces once solidly behind capital punishment are now splintered, in part because of the system's costs and the relatively few executions.

Heller said he began speaking out against capital punishment after coming to believe that California had executed a "factually innocent" inmate. Even before that 1998 execution, Heller was having doubts, he said. He had become a defense lawyer and saw attorneys he considered "marginal" assigned to represent capital defendants.

Woodford's Roman Catholic upbringing had long made her leery of capital punishment, but she said she did not become passionate about the issue until after she saw executions up close. On execution nights, she met with family members of condemned inmates' victims.

"When you meet prior to the execution, they are looking at you with such hope, that this is somehow going to make them feel better," she said. "And then afterward, looking in their faces, it seems like it clearly didn't give them what they were looking for. What is closure? I don't think it is watching an individual get a needle in his arm and go to sleep."

Most experts believe that if Proposition 34 is rejected, executions won't resume for at least another year. Only 14 of the 729 death row inmates have exhausted their primary appeals. But barring last-minute reprieves, those 14 could be put to death relatively quickly, death penalty backers said.

The Proposition 34 campaign, managed by an ACLU policy director, has focused more on the cost than the ethics of capital punishment. The campaign cites a study that estimated that between now and 2050, the death penalty will cost California as much as $7 billion more than life without parole.

The study said more than 740 additional inmates will be added to death row in those years, while more than 500 condemned prisoners will die of old age or other causes.

California's legislative analyst has said annual savings from Proposition 34 could start at $100 million and reach $130 million. The savings are attributed to cheaper trials, less expensive incarceration and fewer appeals. Opponents of Proposition 34 counter that healthcare for lifers could eat up those savings.

Death row inmates would have their sentences converted to life without parole, be moved into the general prison population and be expected to work.

Proposition 34 also would give law enforcement agencies grants totaling $100 million over four years for murder and rape investigations, an amount a spokesman for the "No on 34" campaign dismissed as "budget dust."

In ballot materials, the opposition argument implies the measure would cost, rather than save. "California is broke," the argument says. "Prop. 34 costs taxpayers $100 million over four years and many millions more, long term."

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