This November, Californians will decide between two competing ballot measures that will determine the future of capital punishment in the state.
Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty in California while the other – Proposition 66 – would strengthen it. But even though the two sides in the capital punishment debate seek very different outcomes, almost everyone agrees that the state's current system is broken.
Former NFL player Kermit Alexander is following the issue closely. His mother, sister and two nephews were brutally murdered in Los Angeles in 1984 – victims of mistaken identity in a gang home invasion. Alexander and his wife, Tami, say they are still waiting for justice.
With 750 people on California's death row, their executions stalled by the courts, nearly everyone agrees that California's system of capital punishment has been broken since 1978, when the state reinstated the death penalty after a six-year hiatus imposed by the state’s Supreme Court. There have been no executions since 2006, when a judge ruled that California’s method of lethal injection could constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” and thus would violate both the U.S. and California constitutions.
Costly delays and appeals
In the past three decades, “California taxpayers have spent $5 billion [on death row inmates]," said law professor Paula Mitchell of Loyola Law School.
"The state has executed 13 people. Roughly 100 have died [of natural causes] on death row before their appeals were finished or before the state could execute them,” she added.
Those costs were driven up by time-consuming appeals by opponents of the death penalty, said Mike Hestrin, the district attorney in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. “They have managed to create a system where there's so much delay, so much built-in delay, where someone who gets a death-penalty verdict can expect to wait sometimes six to seven years before they ever get a lawyer assigned to them.”
Proposition 66, which Hestrin supports, aims to fix that.
Biased, flawed system?
Death-penalty opponents say capital punishment is disproportionately applied to African-Americans and Hispanics.
“It's very clear to me that the death system in our country is racist in application,” said actor and activist Mike Farrell, who has worked to end the death penalty for three decades. “It's only used against the poor or the poorly defended,” he said. “It entraps and kills the innocent. There is simply, in my view, no justice and no justification for it.”
Professor Paula Mitchell, who oversees Project for the Innocent at Loyola's law school, says more than 150 prisoners condemned to death around the country were exonerated and saved from execution.
Supporters of capital punishment say legal systems vary by state, and they point out exonerations are rare or non-existent in California. Opponents say those mistakenly convicted can be released from prison, but those wrongfully executed cannot be brought back.
Nearly 200 of California's death-row inmates murdered children, including the man convicted of killing Kermit Alexander's nephews, who were 8 and 13 when they died. “It is only about justice,” said Tami Alexander. Kermit Alexander often finds the memories too wrenching to speak of.
Capital punishment is rarely applied, says Riverside District Attorney Hestrin, but he believes that it is warranted in the most heinous cases.
“I think it is a tool that we prosecutors need, and that the justice system needs, in order to appropriately punish people that commit outrageous and heinous crimes. And it's also a way for society to express their justified outrage at what's happened,” he said.
People on all sides admit that answers are not easy. Hestrin notes that the leaders of his Roman Catholic faith oppose the death penalty, but like many American Catholics, he supports it.
States, countries banning executions
Mitchell says one U.S. state after another has abandoned the death penalty. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have rejected the practice.
According to Amnesty International, 140 countries have banned the death penalty. Critics say the United States is rare among democratic nations in keeping capital punishment. “I think it corrupts us,” says activist Farrell. “I think it corrupts the society. And I think it demeans us as people.”
But supporters say it is needed, “to say that we are a society that values life, and if you take it, expect to pay for it,” said Tami Alexander.