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How Death Penalty Initiatives Seek To Solve A Broken System

California voters will likely decide in November whether to abolish the death penalty or to streamline the process. Proponents for two competing ballot initiatives met for a hearing at the Capitol Tuesday.

They argued whether the death penalty is moral, necessary, or just, but also if the state’s current broken system can be fixed.

California spends upwards of $150 million a year on the death penalty and has hundreds of death row inmates, but hasn’t executed anyone in more than a decade.

"We’re just spending a lot of money and not getting justice for it," says defense attorney and Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.

Uelman testified in favor of a ballot measure to abolish capital punishment.

Eight years ago, he helped come up with a different solution. Uelman led a state-appointed commission of prosecutors, defenders, police, and victim advocates that made a unanimous recommendation about how to make the death penalty process work.

"If we really want to fix the system, we need to spend the money to have a cadre of professional lawyers who are doing nothing but death penalty cases," Uelman says.

The commission estimated it would cost the state $100 million a year to hire enough public defenders and other attorneys.

Uelmen says the other initiative headed to the November ballot does not solve that problem. The measure seeks to jumpstart the death penalty, largely by hastening an appeals process that currently can drag on for decades.  

Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson says death penalty supporters have also found a workaround for adding more attorneys, one that doesn't increase state spending.

"Death penalty cases aren’t as complicated as some might think," Peterson says. "They’re murder of a police officer. Is that particularly complicated? No."

The measure would allow trial courts to appoint attorneys who don’t specialize in capital punishment, but who handle other serious crimes.

Peterson says the initiative was drafted to follow other recommendations in the 2008 report--although increasing spending on attorneys was the only one that received unanimous agreement.

Proponents plan to submit enough voter signatures to qualify the pro-death penalty measure for the ballot on Thursday.

The measure to abolish the death penalty has already submitted signatures.