Life-and-death decision - Page 2

Backers of Prop 34 target the still-high number of undecided voters

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Will California become the 18th US state to abolish capital punishment?
PHOTO BY AP IMAGES

UC Berkeley Public Policy Professor Bruce Cain attributes the undecided electorate to the state's inconsistency toward capital punishment.

"Historically, the state of California has flipped on its [death penalty] policy," he said. "My guess is that it is a little bit hard for voters to navigate through now."

But at a time when California is in a fiscal crisis and federal judges have ordered the state to substantially reduce the population in its overcrowded prison system, Prop. 34 proponents have been making fiscal arguments more than moral ones.

According to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, ending the Death Penalty would save taxpayers $130 million a year, and set aside a $100 million annual fund for law enforcement agencies to use in solving homicide and rape cases.

Prop 36, reform of the harsh Three Strikes and You're Out law, is the other big sentencing reform initiative on the ballot. Prop 36 would save taxpayers about $100 million a year, yet it is a 3-1 favorite in the polls, a stark contrast to Prop 34.

"The death penalty has been overshadowed by the Three Strikes prop, and that's possibly another aspect of the undecided voters," Cain said. "But remember people that are undecided at the end are the people that only get information from their TV."

That's something that Yes on 34 is well aware of and about to address.

The campaign has reported spending more than $3 million since July producing television and cable ads, which are launching this week.

"You'll be seeing TV and radio which will provide much more information to the public, and when they have that information, the facts speak for themselves," Woodford said.

But No of 34 campaign has fear and emotional arguments on its side. Spokesperson Peter Demarco told us, "Prop 34 isn't about saving money. It's the centerpiece of the liberal ACLU's agenda to weaken California's public safety laws."

Cain thinks Prop 34 has a chance, but the real test is yet to come.

"If indeed the no people plan to throw money into this and really land some hard-hitting emotional ads, then you could see voters being moved dramatically," he said. "If people see these emotional ads and don't move, then that tells you that the electorate has changed."

LONG ROAD

Executions in California go back to its earliest settlements, and it was first authorized in the state's penal code in 1872.

In 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution, commuting more than 100 death sentences to life in the prison without the possibility of parole.

Cain says that during the 1970s and '80s, when California's rising crime rate was making big news, the public began to embrace capital punishment.

"There were more violent murders, there was crack cocaine, there was a sense that people were going way over the line, and it was very much a moral issue," he said.

In 1977, the California Legislature re-enacted the death penalty in first-degree murders only. In 1978, California voters broadened the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. But polls show the pendulum swinging back.

"We haven't seen a vote like this to abolish the death penalty in about 40 years," said Richard Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center. "Just the fact that it's happening is indicative to the growing skepticism toward the death penalty."

The number of countries that have abolished the death penalty has doubled to more than 120 the past 25 years. In the US, Connecticut recently became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, not including the District of Columbia. Will California be next?

"Ten years ago, it was 70-30 against ending the death penalty in California, but that's changed and it's closer now. The information is going to make a difference for undecided voters," said Dieter.

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