California and capital punishment: Why this blue state keeps voting for the death penalty


California’s turbulent history with the death penalty reached another landmark in November when voters approved a proposition to expedite death row appeals and rejected a proposition to repeal capital punishment.

Proposition 62, which was defeated, would have repealed the death penalty and replaced existing death sentences with life without the possibility of parole. Proposition 66, which voters approved, could expedite death row processes by limiting the amount of time available for appeals.

Although favor for capital punishment in the U.S. generally aligns with those on the political right, California has now broken from leftist death penalty propositions twice since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978; Proposition 34 was defeated with 52 percent against in 2012, and last fall, Proposition 62 was defeated with 53.15 percent against, according to Ballotpedia. Both those propositions would have repealed the death penalty and replaced it with a life sentence without parole.

“I don’t remember how I voted for [Proposition 66],” Rochelle Goins, a California voter, said in an interview. “I have the feeling that I might have voted to expedite [the death penalty].”

While Goins believes there are certain crimes for which the offender does not deserve to live, she says the current death penalty process does not deliver justice. The death penalty “has been abused, and it has been unfairly distributed, and it has been targeting minorities,” she believes, and that’s why she says she voted “yes” on Proposition 62.

To both abolitionists and those who are pro-capital punishment, California’s death row may not be working. Since 1978, the state has executed only 13 people, while 749 inmates remain on death row.

Abolitionists who reasoned that implementing Proposition 66 would be better than keeping the death penalty as-is may have effectively voted against repeal. While it was not made explicitly clear on the ballot, Proposition 62 and 66 were competing initiatives. If they had both passed, whichever initiative passed by a greater margin would have been the one implemented.

Ron Briggs was in favor of the death penalty. Briggs’ father led the successful campaign for the Death Penalty Act in 1978.

But since then, Briggs has become an abolitionist because he believes the system is not financially viable, the appeals process prolongs the suffering of victims’ families and he could not reconcile capital punishment with his Catholic faith.

Last fall, Briggs led the campaign for Proposition 62 and blames the ballot outcome on what he says was the campaign’s inability to get its message across.

“The late entry of Prop. 66 had the effect that its proponents wanted: it confused the voters,” Briggs said. “We didn’t get the message out properly. I mean, fundamentally, we can blame this any way you want to go, but the fact is that our campaign didn’t do a good enough job.”

This ballot issue is not isolated to death penalty initiatives, according to Santa Clara Law Professor Ellen Kreitzberg. “Whenever you have two competing initiatives like this one — you have one which abolishes it and one which expedites it — there’s always a danger of voter confusion,” she said.

Alternatively, voters may have kept the death penalty because of a perception of high crime rates. Stanford Law Professor John Donohue says when crime rates increase, so does the support for the death penalty — despite the lack of evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent for violent crime.

Crime rates are actually lower than in past decades, according to Pew Research Center. The rhetoric during President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may have contributed toward inflating the public’s perception of crime rates. “When people are fearful, they are more likely to support more draconian measures,” Donohue said.

The week following its approval, Briggs and former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp litigated Proposition 66. The California Supreme Court is expected to rule by August on challenges to Proposition 66, leaving the death row process’ future in uncertainty.

(Homepage thumbnail photo by Ed Uthman via Flickr/Creative Commons.)