Signatures are being solicited for two November ballot initiatives that would ask California voters to speed up executions or repeal the death penalty.
One of the initiatives would require the state Supreme Court to rule on capital cases within five years. It would also limit death penalty appeals, set strict deadlines for filing appeals and seek to expand the pool of death penalty lawyers.
Any attorney who now accepts court appointments to represent impoverished defendants in criminal cases would also have to take on capital cases, regardless of experience, reported Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Included in this proposal is a scheme that would disregard the commentary period required by the state to approve a new single-drug execution method that would eliminate the current three-drug executions.
Egelko also reported that a rival initiative would repeal and replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Sponsors for the abolition initiative have raised more than $1 million and both initiatives will need 365,880 valid signatures of registered voters in 180 days in order to be placed on the November ballot, said criminal trial lawyer Charles Bell.
Proponents supporting the elimination of capital punishment in the state of California saw death penalty sentences decline sharply in 2015. According o the Death Penalty Information Center, “there were 28 executions in six states, the fewest since 1991. There were 49 death sentences in 2015,” a 33 percent decline from what was already a 40-year low.
Three states, California, Florida and Alabama, accounted for more than half of all new death sentences in the country. The center reported “13 of the California death verdicts were concentrated in four Southern California counties.”
Riverside County by itself imposed eight death sentences, 16 percent of all the new death sentences in the nation and more than those that were imposed by any state except Florida. The center’s report shows “two-thirds of the 28 people executed in 2015 exhibited symptoms of severe mental illness, intellectual disability, the debilitating effects of extreme trauma and abuse or some combination of the three.”
More than 20 percent of death sentence imposed since 2010 were handed down by non-unanimous juries. This is a practice barred in all states except Florida, Alabama and Delaware. Those states collectively have” imposed 16 percent of death penalty cases in the nation. However, more than a quarter of all death sentences in 2015 were cases in which juries did not unanimously recommend death, the center reported.
“I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment”
“At least 70 Death Row prisoners with execution dates in 2015 received stays, reprieves or commutations, 2.5 times the numbers who were executed.” The number of executions dropped by 20 percent compared to 2014 from 35 to 28, “marking the first time in 24 years that fewer than 30 executions were carried out in the United States,” the center reported.
“Most states in the union have abandoned the death penalty in law or in practice,” according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The report shows 33 jurisdictions, including 30 states and the District of Columbia, the federal government and the U.S. military, have either formally eliminated the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in the last nine years.
In 2015, a Religion Research Institute’s survey revealed that when asked the policy question which sentence they preferred as punishment for people of murder, “a majority of Americans favored life without parole over the death penalty.”
In the opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, “I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”
–Charles David Henry