California Counts

A collaboration between Capital Public Radio, KQED, KPCC and KPBS to cover the 2016 elections in California.

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Death Penalty Propositions Divide Voters

Scott Shafer / KQED

Phones line the wall of the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison when it was unveiled to reporters in 2010. The facility has never been used.

Scott Shafer / KQED

Scott Shafer | KQED

There are two completely opposite November ballot measures dealing with capital punishment, and a new poll shows neither one is getting support from a majority of voters.

Proposition 62 would repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It falls just short of the simple majority it needs to pass.

Forty-eight percent of likely voters support it, while 37 percent are against it. Fifteen percent are undecided.

Meanwhile, Proposition 66, a rival measure that would speed up the death penalty process by shortening legal appeals, has the support of just 35 percent of likely voters. Twenty-three percent oppose it and 42 percent remain undecided.

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo says even though Proposition 62 is leading, its passage is by no means assured. He points to polling for an earlier measure to repeal the death penalty, Proposition 34 in 2012.

“In that year,” DiCamillo says, “the Field Poll’s final survey, completed one week before the November election, showed Prop. 34 clinging to a narrow 45 percent to 38 percent lead. However, on Election Day the yes side failed to get above the needed 50 percent threshold, and Prop. 34 was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent.”

Proposition 66 is supported by most of California’s district attorneys and many crime victims’ groups. San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, president of the California District Attorneys Association, says that if the death penalty is abolished, it will be a terrible blow to crime victims.

“It won’t be justice in their minds,” Wagstaffe says. If Proposition 62 passes, he says, “Crime victims will feel once again that the system has failed them. And the concept of life without parole — they simply don’t believe it.”

Nearly 750 people are currently on death row, most of them at San Quentin State Prison. Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, 13 inmates have been put to death. And even though the number of death sentences being handed down in California has dwindled, the population of death row continues growing.

It’s been more than a decade since the last execution. In 2006 a federal judge put a hold on executions over concerns about the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. The state is still developing a new policy on executions. Of the 119 condemned inmates who have died since 1978, 96 died of natural causes or suicide.

California Counts is a collaboration with four public media organizations in California to cover the 2016 election. This includes KPCC in Los AngelesKQED in San Francisco, Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and KPBS in San Diego.