For the first time in nearly 35 years, California voters will decide on the fate of the state's death penalty law. Proposition 34, on this November's ballot, proposes a full repeal of the law, prohibiting the use of capital punishment. If passed, the measure would convert the sentences of all current death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Not surprisingly, Prop 34 is among the most emotionally-charged issues on this year's ballot, marking yet another chapter in California's ongoing, soul-searching debate on justice and punishment. Filmmaker Jazmin Jones examines the emotional complexity and widely conflicting political views of an issue that has long divided Californians.
California has had a really 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. That marked 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, in violation of the state's constitution. But just nine months later, California voters approved a ballot initiative that amended the 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.