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California vote is a question of life or death for death-row prisoners

Saturday, 3 November 2012 - 8:43am IST | Place: Los Angeles | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

The measure, known as Proposition 34, would retroactively abolish the death penalty in America's most populous state, replacing it with a sentence of life in jail without parole.

They cannot vote, but 724 killers on death row in California have more interest than most in the results of Tuesday's elections. For them, polling day is literally a matter of life and death as, alongside the presidential vote, a statewide ballot is taking place on whether they should all be given a reprieve.

The measure, known as Proposition 34, would retroactively abolish the death penalty in America's most populous state, replacing it with a sentence of life in jail without parole. If approved, it could have a knock-on effect in some of the 32 other American states where capital punishment is used.

California is home to the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere, located at San Quentin State Prison just north of San Francisco. It houses twice as many condemned men as Texas and Florida's prisons put together. Infamous inmates include prolific serial killers such as the "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, 52, the "Freeway Killer" Randy Kraft, 67, and the "Dating Game Killer" Rodney Alcala, 69, responsible for scores of murders between them.

Polls show that the issue is on a knife edge, with just a few percentage points separating voters after a recent surge in support for abolitionists. That has been helped by a television advertisement featuring the actor Martin Sheen, who played the liberal president Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing.

The advert also features Franky Carrillo who was freed last year after his 20-year-old conviction for a drive-by shooting was overturned. He tells viewers: "We always risk executing an innocent person." Supporters of capital punishment have been quick to point out that Mr Carrillo was never in fact sentenced to death, as he was 16 at the time he was arrested. But when it comes to campaigning, the abolitionists have a clear advantage, having raised $6.5?million (pounds 4.1?million).

The moral arguments in the debate are well-worn, so instead they are trying to appeal to voter's wallets. They claim that getting rid of the death penalty would save $130?million a year by avoiding the extra costs of capital trials, and ending automatic public funding for seemingly endless appeals. California, they say, has spent $4billion on capital punishment since 1978, yet just 13 inmates have actually been executed. That equates to $308million per execution. The costs are incurred from both legal proceedings — a capital trial can cost up to 20 times more than a non-capital one — and having to incarcerate death row prisoners separately.

Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin, who oversaw four executions, is a supporter of Proposition 34. She said: "The death penalty is not a deterrent, it's just about retribution. After an execution, someone on my staff would say 'Is the world safer?' and we knew the answer was no. "Does the death penalty work? The answer is no. Does it provide public safety? No. Is it cost beneficial? No."

The debate has divided victims' families, with some supporting abolition. But Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was murdered in 1993, said her killer Richard Allen Davis, should die. He said: "Davis earned his death sentence but Proposition 34 would let him escape justice. These vicious criminals deserve to be held accountable for the actions they chose to commit."

Mary Lou Canady, whose daughter Linda was murdered in 1985, made an internet video appealing to voters to use "good sense" and back the death penalty. Her daughter's killers are on death row, and she said such people had forfeited the right to live. Perhaps surprisingly there has been opposition to abolition from death row inmates themselves, because the measure would stop public funding for extended appeals. In an internet posting Darrell Lomax, a convicted killer who maintains his innocence, said it would mean "still death, just by a different name".

He added: "How will it be possible for the innocent to prove their innocence?" In a letter to a television station, four-time murderer Kenneth Bivert, 42, wrote from San Quentin in support of the death penalty. He said that if voters got rid of the death penalty "society will see further increases in horrific and violent crimes against innocent citizens".

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