More than 700 inmates are awaiting their sentences on death row in California. They have one cell each and a higher level of security than other inmates. Through the crimes they committed, their lives or deaths were put in the hands of others.
If Proposition 34 passes, this will all change. It will repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.
The proposition will apply to convicts who are already on death row. Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles District Attorney, is in support of the proposition, also known as the Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act.
“I used to believe in the death penalty, but I changed my opinion,” he said. “It is a waste of money when nobody is being executed. The death penalty system is something that we can’t fix. There are not enough lawyers and judges. Even if the commission adds more, it will cost more to try and fix the system than to get rid of it. It’ll still be a minimum of 15 years before a sentence is carried out.”
He also believes that out of the inmates currently on death row, at least one or two of them are innocent. He makes this conclusion based on the proven innocence of Franky Carrillo, who wasn’t on death row but had to spend 20 years in prison. He was released earlier this year.
Carrillo was charged with murder when he was 16 years old. Recently, all six witnesses admitted that they could not recognize the shooter. They claimed police officers influenced them to identify Carrillo as the perpetrator.
Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, thinks the doubts about Carrillo’s guilt don’t apply to the discussion about the death penalty. Carrillo wasn’t convicted in the capital punishment system. He wasn’t sent to death row.
“There are thousands of judgments in California and they cannot fight a single one. Not one out of thousand. The system has enough safe guards so the chances of executing an innocent person are extremely (rare),” he said.
Scheidegger is going to vote no in November. He believes that in cases such as The Night Stalker and Charles Manson, death is the punishment and any less is inadequate.
“Voters should take into consideration that the worst of the worst murderers are the people that are sentenced to death. We can carry it out, we know how to do it. We know which reforms are needed and those reforms are being made,” he said.
Thirteen executions have taken place since the death penalty was reinstated back in 1978, according to the 2011 study “Executing The Will Of Voters?” published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. Since the reinstatement, taxpayers have spent more that $4 billion on capitol punishment.
Prop. 34 states that California will save $130 million each year if the death penalty is replaced. Supporters also claim that a county pays 20 times more for a death penalty sentence than for a trial for life without the possibility of parole.
Daisy Vieyra, a spokeswoman for SAFE, is a recent graduate and understands that voting on Prop. 34 can be hard for students.
“We are young and we live in our own world. We have our mid-terms, our jobs. But it’s good to keep in mind that 56 percent of all murders and 46 percent of all rape cases reported go unsolved because it takes too long to process the evidence. If we could process this more quickly, we would be able to catch them,” she said.
Vieyra also said that we live in a state where the financial system is not working.
“It’s not a healthy thing, our broken death penalty. The last execution was in 2006. Only 13 people have been executed. We have the longest death row, even the one in Texas is shorter. More people die of old age, natural causes or suicide than of execution,” she said. “Out of the 729 people currently on death row, maybe 13 are eligible to be executed. They have used up all of their appeals.”
Ricki Stevé, an 18-year-old at SF State student, said she would say yes to the replacement of death penalty by life sentence. She is Christian and sees killing as the act of sin.
“Yes, murder itself is a sin, but it doesn’t make it right for you to sin against the sinner,” Stevé, an undeclared major, said. “In other words: If you killed someone, I should kill you?”
Melissa Covert, also an undeclared major, intends to vote no on Prop. 34.
“In my opinion, it’s a waste of money to keep someone in prison when there is no chance of them getting out,” Covert, 18, said, “I mean, in a perfect world I don’t think people should be killed to prove a point or punish them. But there are so many other aspects such as money and the overcrowding that I think it’s the best option,” she said.
One of the goals of Prop. 34 is that prisoners who are found guilty must work during their sentences. Their earnings will go to any victim rehabilitation or to fines or orders against them. In addition, there will be a $100 million general money fund created from what is saved. It will be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve homicide and rape cases.
“Some of the victims want the death penalty to continue and that’s understandable. They want justice. But the prisoners on death row right now have a cell to themselves, they have a television and they can work out in the yard,” Vieyra said.
During the month of September, the California Business Roundtable did a survey using persons of diverse education levels and geography in an attempt to predetermine the outcome of Prop. 34. The survey stated that 42.5 percent would vote yes, whereas 50.5 percent would vote no.
The true answer will come this November.
Part one in a series of six stories examining California’s propositions