Among the heap of statewide propositions California voters weigh in on next month, two are literally life and death decisions.
Proposition 62 would abolish capital punishment in California, making life without the possibility of parole the maximum punishment for murder. The Yes on 62 campaign argues that the death penalty in California is a failed, immoral and incredibly expensive system, costing taxpayers upwards of $150 million a year.
On the other hand, Proposition 66 would not only keep the state's death penalty intact, it would speed up the notoriously long appeals process for those cases, potentially accelerating the rate of executions. The Yes on 66 campaign advocates for reforming the system by making it more efficient. "Mend, don't end, California's death penalty" is its slogan.
In the extreme unlikelihood that both measures receive more than 50 percent approval, only the one with the most votes would be enacted.
An Indecisive History
California has had a tough time making up its mind about the death penalty. In 1872, the state authorized capital punishment in its penal code (until then, executions were generally conducted by county sheriffs). 23 years later, a guy named Jose Gabriel, convicted of murdering an elderly couple, was hung inside San Quentin Prison, marking California’s first official execution at the hands of the state.
For the next 75-odd years, California executed nearly 500 inmates, four of them women.
And then things got really confusing.
In early 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s death penalty law constituted cruel and unusual punishment.. But just nine months later, California voters approved a ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to make capital punishment permissible. A year later, the state passed legislation that actually made the death penalty mandatory for certain crimes. But once again, the state Supreme Court struck back, ruling that law unconstitutional as well.
Fast forward six years. In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 7 by a whopping 70 percent. The initiative not only reinstated the state's death penalty, but also broadened the list of circumstances under which a convicted prisoner could receive a death sentence. It also increased prison terms for first and second degree murder.
And its this law that currently stands in California. The last attempt to abolish capital punishment in California came in 2012, when voters narrowly defeated Proposition 34.
Slow and expensive
Since 1978, the state has only executed 13 prisoners (a 14th was convicted in California but executed in Missouri). More death row inmates in California have died from natural causes than been executed. The last execution - of Clarence Ray Allen - in January 2006. There are nearly 750 prisoners currently residing on California's death row, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The vast majority of them are men housed at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, less than 20 miles from downtown San Francisco.
Interestingly, many capital punishment opponents in California argue for repealing the death penalty largely on economic grounds. They contend that the current system is horribly inefficient and a financial burden to the already cash-strapped state. Due to the number of legal appeals and required long-term special supervision for death row inmates, the financial costs of executing a prisoner far outweigh that of life imprisonment. Repealing the death penalty would save the state an estimated $100 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
But supporters of the death penalty argue that criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes deserve to be put to death. Some believe the death penalty deters criminal behavior, and for the families and friends of victims, is the only way that justice can be truly served.
The U.S. stands alone
Among western democracies, the U.S. stands alone in its continued use of capital punishment. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended a brief moratorium, more than 1400 inmates have been executed. Of these, Texas has led the way, executing nearly 540 inmates in the last four decades.
The death penalty is legal in 31 states, including California, where a 2012 voter initiative to abolish it was narrowly defeated. 17 states have had executions in the last five years. However, executions have been idled in a growing number of states with large death row populations, including California and Pennsylvania, due to ongoing appeals and other legal constraints.
The practice also remains legal in the federal justice system, as evidenced by the recent death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But he now joins more than 60 other death row inmates in a federal system that has conducted only three executions in the last half century.
But a series of factors, including recent high-profile botched executions, lethal injection drug shortages, last minute exonerations, evidence of racial discrimination in sentencing, huge legal costs and dropping crime rates have all contributed to a growing uneasiness with capital punishment among both liberals and a growing number of conservatives.
Although a solid majority of Americans still believe that convicted murderers should be executed, support has waned considerably in recent decades, according to recent polls. Of the 19 states (and Washington D.C.) that have abolished the death penalty, six have done so in the last ten years.
About the filmmaker
Jazmin Jones is a filmmaker and graduate of the Bay Area Video Coalition's Digital Pathways Program. She studied at the City College of San Francisco.