LOS ANGELES (AP) — California voters rejected the latest attempt to repeal California's death penalty, dealing a blow to activists who saw the election as their best chance in 35 years to end capital punishment in the state.
Officials were still counting ballots, but it was apparent Wednesday that voters rejected Proposition 34 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. The defeat came even though recent polling showed concern growing over the cost of capital punishment and its paltry results in California.
The state has executed just 13 convicts, and its death row has ballooned to 726 inmates since 71 percent of the electorate voted to reinstate capital punishment in 1978. No executions have taken place since 2006 because of federal and state lawsuits filed by death row inmates.
The Legislative Analyst has said ending the death penalty would save the state $130 million annually.
Still, it appears a majority of California voters still support capital punishment in California as the best way to deal with the state's most heinous killers, but would like to see reforms.
"They are frustrated with the ineffectiveness and excessive cost of the present system," said Michael Rushford, president of the politically conservative Criminal Defense Legal Foundation,
He said the election was a call for California officials to streamline the appeals process, expand the pool of defense attorneys qualified to handle capital cases, and execute inmates with a single lethal drug instead of the three-drug mixture now used.
Activists seeking to repeal the death penalty said the voting results showed that a growing number of Californians are moving toward opposing the punishment on all grounds. Amnesty International noted that the number of people supporting repeal was an improvement over the 29 percent who voted against reinstating the death penalty in 1978.
"California is now deeply divided on the question of capital punishment," said Amnesty International's Brian Evans, who noted that five states have repealed the death penalty in the past five years.
Proposition 34 would have repealed capital punishment in California and shuttered death row, converting the death sentences of 726 inmates to life without the possibility of parole. The measure also would have created a $100 million fund to help investigate unsolved murder and rape cases.
The measure's backers, including the American Civil Liberties Union, vowed to continue fighting to end the death penalty in California.
"The mere fact that the state is evenly divided is nothing short of extraordinary," said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin Prison, where death row is located.
Woodford worked for the Proposition 34 campaign and is now an anti-death penalty crusader.
Supporters had pointed to an influential study published by a federal appeals court judge and law professor that concluded California has spent $4 billion to carry out just 13 executions and cover other death penalty costs since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.
Influential law enforcement officials and three former governors opposed the ballot measure. They argued that the condemned inmates would escape justice and that there were no true cost savings from closing death row.
"The people of California sent a clear message that the death penalty should still be implemented for those who commit the most heinous and unthinkable crimes," said McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney for Sacramento who served as the opposition's co-chairman.
The measure's backers vastly outspent opponents $6.5 million to $1 million. Billionaires Nicholas Pritzker and Charles Feeney, through his philanthropic fund, each donated $1 million to the campaign for repeal. The American Civil Liberties Union contributed more than $700,000 and ran the campaign.
Federal and state judges have halted executions in the state since 2006 after ordering prison officials to develop new lethal injection procedures. Those lawsuits are still being litigated.