Calif. Death Penalty Opposition Focuses On Economy

Among the propositions on the ballot this November in California: a referendum that would end the death penalty. The effort to end capital punishment is being sold as an economic issue — not a moral issue.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Here in California, voters will soon decide the fate of hundreds of condemned killers sitting on Death Row.

INSKEEP: A ballot measure would abolish the death penalty in favor of life sentences without parole.

MONTAGNE: California has a long and complicated history with the death penalty. It was overturned by the state supreme court 40 years ago.

INSKEEP: That led to a constitutional amendment reinstating it, followed by a series of court challenges.

MONTAGNE: Finally, in 1978, a voter initiative made many more convicted murderers eligible for the death penalty.

INSKEEP: And now, this new ballot measure would overturn that tough law if it's passed. And it has strong proponents, including the ones we'll hear about from NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The chief spokesperson for Proposition 34, the measure to repeal the death penalty in California, might strike some as a most unlikely figure.

JEANNE WOODFORD: I spent over 30 years in criminal justice, and the majority of that time at San Quentin.

GONZALES: Jeannie Woodford is the former head of the California prison system. She was one of the first female cellblock guards and the first female warden at San Quentin State Prison. During her tenure as warden, Woodford presided over four executions, and she thinks the state was wasting money.

WOODFORD: You know, since 1978, we've had 13 executions. Those 13 executions and the entire death penalty system has cost the state over $4 billion. Does that improve public safety? The answer for me is no, and I think the answer for most people is no.

GONZALES: Woodford and other Prop 34 supporters - primarily liberal philanthropists and the ACLU - are not arguing about the morality of the death penalty. Instead, in an era of falling crime rates and growing budget deficits, they say the system is too expensive.

WOODFORD: Why would you even talk about fixing a system? There just isn't the money to do it.

KENT SCHEIDEGGER: I don't buy the argument that the death penalty is necessarily more expensive.

GONZALES: Kent Scheidegger is the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and opponent of Prop 34. He says the system would be cheaper and more effective if the state would cut down the number of appeals a death row inmate can make.

SCHEIDEGGER: In California, we have death row inmates with government-paid lawyers filing not just one appeal, not just two, but petition after petition after petition.

GONZALES: As a result, says Scheidegger, an inmate can sit on death row for more than two decades. But efforts to limit the appeals process have never made it out of the legislature.

The opponents of the death penalty have only recently launched a TV ad campaign. Supporters of the death penalty - mainly law enforcement and victims' right groups - are being vastly outspent. They're relying on Web ads and a grassroots campaign reminding voters who is on death row and why they are there.

MARC KLAAS: My name is Marc Klaas, and I'm the president of the Klaas Kids Foundation.

GONZALES: Marc Klaas is the father of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma, California girl who was brutally kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 1993 by a recidivist violent offender who has sat on death row since 1996.

KLAAS: The state of California has promised all of us that a certain population of individuals' crimes are so heinous and they're so unrepentant and they're so psychopathic in nature that they deserve to die for those crimes.

GONZALES: Californians have long supported the death penalty in principle. And voters may be in no hurry to change that decision. Polls show that Prop 34 is trailing heading into Election Day.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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