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Should California end the death penalty or speed it up?

The San Quentin Lethal Injection Room


If you’ve moved to California recently, you might not realize its one of 30 states with the death penalty—because, these days, no one’s being executed. This November, voters will decide if they want to speed up the death penalty appeals process...or get rid of the death penalty altogether. 

More than a decade ago, a judge ordered executions to stop until the state changed its execution method. Since then, California’s death row has swelled to nearly 750 people, the largest in the country. And even before 2006, when executions did take place, death row appeals still took decades. 

A victim waits 

Back in 1996, Mark Klaas stood up in a courtroom, and asked that Richard Allen Davis--the man who kidnapped and murdered his daughter Polly-- be executed. 

“The honorable way out for him would be to commit suicide. It’s the least he can do to alleviate our pain,” he said. “But since he doesn't have the courage to take that step, the state is placed in the terrible position to make that decision for him.” 

Flash forward twenty three years to today. His daughter’s killer is still appealing his sentence.

“My kid...needs peace in death. And as long as that sickness is running through his mind, then, she's not receiving the peace that she deserves,” Klaas says. “It’s only when he’s eliminated, only when he’s gone, that Polly’s memory will no longer be soiled.” 

Prop 66 and a faster death penalty 

Davis’ execution isn't likely to happen anytime soon. In 2006, a judge ordered California to stop all executions and review the state’s lethal injection protocol. Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson says the death penalty is frozen despite popular support. Four years ago, Californians voted to keep the death penalty.

“Their will is being thwarted, because of people who are philosophically opposed to the death penalty...including the legislatures, members of our administration, and lawyers that thwart the death penalty at every step,” Peterson says.  

While death penalty advocates can’t force executions to take place, they’re hoping they might be able to speed up the appeal process. Enter Prop 66, the ballot measure that would put a five year deadline on death penalty appeals. 

“The average time for someone to, after they receive a death verdict by a jury, until they receive an execution date, is 25 years,” Peterson says. “So, it is a system that's broken, and Prop 66 is the attempt, by law enforcement, to fix the process.” 

Death penalty advocate turned abolitionist 

For most of his life, former El Dorado Supervisor Ron Briggs wanted executions to speed up, too. But now he's swapped sides, and is backing a different proposition: Prop 62. Prop 62 would end the death penalty altogether. 

Briggs opposes the death penalty for two of the same reasons a lot of people do: morality and money. In 2005, he went back to church, and became opposed on principle. Then, a death penalty retrial was scheduled to take place in town, and Briggs saw the price tag up close. 

“That was the time of which the world was falling apart, in the recession. Three budget requests come in for 1.1 million dollars to pay for the Karris retrial, coming right out of our contingency,” Briggs said. “The DA just takes out, and we don’t have to say anything about it.” 

But he really changed course when he realized how painful the lengthy appeal process can be for victims.  During the retrial, Patty Vander Dussen was forced to re-live the day she and her friend were kidnapped. Vander Dussen survived being shot in the neck, but her friend was raped and murdered.

“I still cry. How the - blah, blah, blah, how the heck did we write an initiative that plucks this woman, 25 years later, out of the sanctity of her home, and sit fifteen feet away from that jerk, and live it all over again?” Briggs asks. 

Prop 62 

Prop 62 would both abolish the death penalty, and turn death sentences into life without the possibility of parole. 

“I truly think if you had a system where you had the closure of one trial, throw the key away, and never have to deal with these guys again, there is closure...and the entire industry of death in California dies itself,” Briggs says. 

Okay, so let’s review: If Prop 62 passes, no more death penalty. If Prop 66 passes, executions get sped up. If both pass, the one with the most votes wins.

The logistics of Prop 66

But how would executions be streamlined under Prop 66? That’s an important, and controversial, detail. Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson says the main reason the process takes so long is that there’s a huge shortage of death row attorneys. The very state agency created to help speed up death penalty appeals process only has thirty four attorneys on staff. 

“The first problem is, it takes 5 years for someone to even get assigned an attorney when they're on death row. That's a horrible situation,” Peterson says. 

Prop 66, he says, would fix that by requiring attorneys qualified to handle other serious cases to accept death row cases. 

“These attorneys are competent to do it, we think there's many of them, hundreds of them throughout the state of California that could do this,” Peterson says. “We think the claim that there aren't qualified attorneys to do it is simply false.” 

With this larger pool of defense lawyers available, Prop 66 would assign attorneys to death row inmates straightaway, and put a five year deadline on appeals. 

A skeptical attorney 

If Prop 66 passes, appeals would begin at the trial court, rather than the state Supreme Court. Those attorneys would have one year to prove whether or not the death row inmate had a fair trial. But criminal defense attorney Darryl Stallworth doesn’t think that’s realistic.

“The trial courts are overwhelmed. To put that burden on a trial court, when they’re trying five, six cases themselves. I don’t believe any of the trial judges would ever find that to be an efficient use of their time,” Stallworth says. 

Stallworth says that death penalty cases are pretty complicated. Many inmates were sentenced before forensic technology was available, and appeals take a long time for a reason. 

“A lot of people are sitting on death row based on an eye witness testimony. Those people deserve to have their case properly reviewed,” he says. “You're talking about someone's life being sped through a process just for the sake of efficiency, when we know that innocent people have been executed.” 

Executions remain frozen 

And there’s another issue...even if Prop 66 passes, executions will remain frozen until the state reviews its lethal injection protocol. Mark Klass says he knows the man who killed his daughter might never be executed…even if the appeal process speeds up. 

“I know where he's at, I know he's like number 450 on a list of 750 in a state that's executed 13 in 30 years, I get all that. The fact that he might not be executed?” Klaas says. “I understand that’s a very real possibility.” 

But Klaas isn’t giving up on death row. 

“The idea that he's looking at that, and that might come, and that might happen, and that might be all I'll get, but if that's all I'll get, that's what I'll take,” Klaas says. 

The death penalty is on a steady decline across the country. So far this year, only five states have even carried out executions. Here in California, the effort to abolish the death penalty leads in the polls, with 48% backing the Prop 62. Around one third of voters support Prop 66 to speed up the death penalty. 

Crosscurrents Elections