No one’s been executed since 2006, now competing ballot propositions aim to change Death Row

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Although their solutions are starkly different, supporters of Proposition 62 and Proposition 66, the competing death penalty measures on California’s November ballot, agree that the state’s capital punishment system is broken. And they even agree on how it’s broken.

First, capital punishment is expensive. It costs the state about $150 million annually to handle complex death penalty trials and appeals and to operate death row at San Quentin Prison, with its population of nearly 750 condemned men.

Second, capital punishment in California is slow. It takes death penalty cases years and even decades to work their way through the state’s overburdened court system, with every death sentence required to be reviewed by the seven-member California Supreme Court.

And despite the time and cost, executions are relatively rare. Since 1978, only 13 people have been put to death in California, and none have been executed since 2006.

“So, as a result, California does have the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. We have more people on death row than any other state,” said Paul Mitchell, the director of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent.

Mitchell is an opponent of capital punishment and supports Proposition 62 on the November ballot. If passed, the measure would abolish California’s death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. Proposition 62 is also retroactive, so if it passes inmates on death row would see their death sentences commuted and, instead, be sentenced to life.

Supporters of Proposition 62, like Mitchell, say California would immediately reap a financial benefit by abolishing the death penalty, eliminating complex capital punishment cases and not having to maintain the death row facilities at San Quentin.

But like others who want to end the death penalty, such as civil libertarians and supporters of criminal justice reform, Mitchell’s main objection to capital punishment is moral. California, she believes, shouldn’t mete out officials punishment that includes the taking of lives, no matter what kind of crime committed.

“State sanctioned killing demeans us as a society,” said Mitchell. “There is no articulable reason to have the death penalty, morally or for public safety reasons. It is just impossible to justify at this point to me.”

Paula Mitchell, the director of Loyola University’s Project for the Innocent, which seeks to overturn wrongful convictions, supports the abolition of the death penalty in California. She believes the death penalty is morally wrong and does little to make society safer. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But death penalty supporters, who are backing Proposition 66, disagree and say some crimes are so horrible that the only just punishment is death.

“The death penalty is an option for us. There are those cases that scream out for it,” said Michael Hestrin, the district attorney of Riverside County and a supporter of Proposition 66.

Unlike Proposition 62’s goal of abolishing the death penalty in California, Prop 66 supporters rally around a slogan of “mend it, don’t end it” when it comes to capital punishment. If passed, the measure would limit the appeals and petitions process in capital cases and require court appointed attorneys to accept capital cases.

Proposition 66 supporters, which include many district attorneys and law enforcement officials, say that would quicken the time it takes between an individual being sentenced to death and execution.

“It would take away the presumption that we can just delay this thing endlessly for any reason,” said Hestrin. “There would be built in presumptions that we have to get over this procedural hurdles in a timely manner.”

Hestrin believes the time between sentencing and execution could be reduced to 10 years, while also protecting the inmates right to appeal the conviction.

Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin supports Proposition 66, which would reform California’s death penalty system and streamline the appeals process to short the time between sentencing and execution. Riverside County accounts for 16 percent of the death sentences imposed in the United States, according to a study by the Death Penalty Information Center. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As Proposition 62 and 66 supporters work to encourage Californians to support their respective “end it” or “mend it” approach to capital punishment, each side is turning to people with tragic connections to crime and the death penalty for support.

At a recent pro-Prop 66 press conference in Monterey Park that was attended by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, the Reverend Ferrell Robbins spoke about why she supports the death penalty.

“When I think about the death penalty, I think about the fact that my brother is not here anymore,” said Ferrell.

Rev. Robbins brother, Joseph, was murdered in 2001 during a store robbery and the killer was sentenced to death. Robbins says she thought carefully about the moral implications of capital punishment, but believes the death of her brother’s murderer is the only just punishment.

“It’s not going to take the pain away, said Ferrell. “For him to be put to death is not going to take the pain away. He basically executed my brother. He shot him in the back of the head. And for me to feel bad for him? He had no remorse sitting in the courtroom. There was no remorse about what he did.”

Reverend Ferrell Robbins’ brother was murdered in 2001, and she supports the death penalty for her brother’s killer as the only just form of punishment.”This is a decision that comes from a sister who lost her baby brother in a horrific way,” said Robbins. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But there are people who’ve been on death row in the United States who were later found to be innocent. They are speaking out in support of the campaign to end capital punishment in California.

At a recent press conference in downtown Los Angeles, 17 exonerated death row inmates from across the country gathered to share their stories of being wrongfully convicted and facing execution for crimes they didn’t commit.

The included Debra Milke who had been accused of killing her four-year-old son in 1990 and was sent to Arizona’s death row for 18 years. A state appeals court dismissed charges against Milke in 2014.

Damon Thibodeaux was wrongly accused of murdering his teenage cousin in the 1990s. He was on Louisiana’s death row for 15 years before his exoneration through DNA evidence. Now a California resident, Thibodeaux said his adopted state should end the death penalty, or risk one day killing an innocent individual.

“If you want to insure that no more innocent people are executed, do away with the death penalty,” said Thibodeaux.  “If you have the death penalty, I promise you, you will kill an innocent person.”

At a Los Angeles press conference, men and women who have been on death rows in various states and were later exonerated, have come out to support the abolition of the death penalty in California. They say keeping capital punishment legal means innocent people could  be executed by mistake. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But in Riverside County, D.A. Michael Historian is confident only guilty people are sentenced to California death row and that won’t change if Proposition 66 passes.

“I think that people can trust the system, that when one someone is guilty, we are going to get it right and make sure that only guilty people are in this system,” said Hestrin.

Riverside County has one of the highest death sentencing rates in the United States and Hestrin says capital punishment has strong public support.

But even as Californians decide on the future of the death penalty in November, national public opinion is shifting. According to a new Pew Center poll, support for the death penalty among Americans has fallen below 50 percent. That’s the lowest it’s been in nearly 50 years.