Death Penalty Upheld in California, But State More Divided Than Ever

The death penalty in California was one of the many issues voted on Nov. 6, and a motion to end capital punishment was rejected by 53 percent of voters on Tuesday – but supporters of Proposition 34 are not giving up on their bid to change the legal structure in the state.

California, like the rest of America, remains heavily split in its views on capital punishment. Although backed by the Roman Catholic Church, those wishing to abolish the practice came up short in their quest to make California the 18th state in America to get rid of the death penalty. Although the state has only executed 13 inmates since 1978, it currently has as many as 724 inmates on death row, while the next largest number is Texas with 407. Executions have been placed on hold since 2006, however, after a federal judge decided that prison officials need to adopt new lethal injection procedures to ensure no inmate suffers "cruel and unusual" pain.

"The problems with delay and expense of California's death penalty are entirely fixable," said McGregor Scott, the former U.S. attorney for Sacramento and co-chair of the opposition campaign, as reported by the Guardian. He said that a viable solution is scrapping the three-drug cocktail in favor of a single-lethal drug injection, which would make executions much more straight-forward.

Abolitionists are arguing, however, that voters are moving in large strides away from the death penalty. Although they acknowledge that 53 percent of residents voted in favor of capital punishment, they noted that as many as 71 percent of voters supported it back in 1978 – marking a significant drop in public support. Campaign manager Natasha Minsker called the results a "dramatic shift" of how Californians view the death penalty, and promised that she will continue fighting until capital punishment is finally defeated.

"The results show the state is equally divided," Minsker remarked. "We are going to continue moving forward with the voters."

The next question for the state becomes how quickly death row inmates will be moved toward receiving their sentences. Since Proposition 34 was struck down, the federal court will have to decide whether to approve the single-drug lethal injection proposal, which would move some prisoners, such as convicted killer Robert Fairbank, one step away from execution.

"A lot of things slowed down with this initiative on the horizon," said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor. "The pregnant question going forward in California is, OK, with [Proposition 34] cleared out, do we get a serious progression toward executions and, then, what's the public response to that going to be?"

The California Catholic Conference (CCC) has also expressed its disappointment in the narrow defeat of Proposition 34.

"Rejecting Proposition 34 represents a missed opportunity for us as a people. The penalty of death is not necessary to protect ourselves, punish the offenders or bring legal finality for victims. The alternate – the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole – would have respected the dignity of each human life, no matter how flawed," said Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, president of CCC.

"We will continue to look for opportunities to end the use of the death penalty and work with others to be a voice for inviting society to respect human life. The Bishops of the CCC are so very appreciative of the thousands of Catholics who worked tirelessly on this campaign, the many donors, and volunteers who joined us in appealing to our sisters and brothers in California," he added.