By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A California ballot measure to abolish the death penalty on cost grounds trailed in early results from Tuesday's election, but voters agreed to soften a "three strikes" law that gives longer sentences to habitual criminals.
With more than three quarters of the precincts reporting, results showed about 53 percent opposed ending capital punishment in the state. California, the most populous U.S. state, hosts nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned prisoners but has executed none in the last six years.
The group that sponsored the measure, SAFE California, refused to concede in the early hours of Wednesday morning, saying on Twitter: "We're still watching results come in - it is not over."
They based their campaign on the question of cost rather than morals. They said the system, with mandated appeals that can take decades, costs so much that the financially troubled state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by instead jailing the worst killers for life.
Public opinion in many states has been shifting away from the death penalty, with five states abolishing capital punishment over the past decade. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia do not allow the death penalty.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006, saying a three-drug lethal injection protocol risked causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death. Executions have yet to resume.
California voters broadly approved another ballot measure that softens the state's "three strikes" law, which gave longer sentences to habitual criminals. California set a national trend on such sentencing schemes more than a decade ago.
With more than three-quarters of precincts reporting, the three strikes reform ballot measure had received over 68 percent of the vote, and organizers declared victory.
"This historic victory overturns the long-held conventional wisdom that it's impossible to fix our most extreme and unjust crime laws - and hopefully inspires future efforts," the spokesman for the Committee for Three Strikes Reform, Dan Newman, said in an e-mailed statement.
The proposition would let some criminals who have been in jail twice avoid a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third crime if it is judged to be nonviolent and non serious.
Supporters of the measure argued that filling prisons with people who are not a threat to society is expensive and often works against restoring felons to a crime-free life.
Michael Thoeresz, a 31-year-old tennis club general manager in Los Angeles, voted for the measure, which recent polls showed had wide support.
"Morally, we cannot lock people up for nonviolent offenses for 25 years to life. It's ridiculous," he said.
Crime in California, like the rest of the nation, has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. State violent crimes are down by more than half and homicides by nearly two-thirds since 1992.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman in Los Angeles; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Storey)