SAN FRANCISCO — Three former California governors are endorsing a proposed initiative for the November ballot that sponsors say would end lengthy death penalty appeals and speed up executions.
Former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were scheduled to appear Thursday at a news conference to announce the launch of an initiative drive for signatures to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot.
The measure, if qualified, would ignite the second statewide debate on the death penalty in California in two years. A ballot proposal that would have ended capital punishment in California narrowly lost in 2012, with 48% of voters in favor and 52% against.
The new proposal would establish five-year court deadlines for deciding death row appeals, transfer most death penalty cases from the California Supreme Court to lower courts, and allow capital inmates to be spread among the general prison population.
It also would require the condemned to work in prison, remove any threat of state sanctions from doctors who advise the state on lethal injection procedures and exempt the execution protocols from a state administrative law that requires extensive public review.
California has more than 700 people on death row, and the last inmate was executed in 2006. The state has no court-approved method of lethally injecting the condemned and drugs to do so have been difficult to obtain. The state also has had trouble recruiting lawyers who are willing to handle capital appeals, which can take decades before they are resolved in state and federal courts.
"The situation we have now is a travesty of justice," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and a backer of the measure. "If you look at the facts of these cases, you will see they are well-deserved sentences for horrible crimes and there is no reason to be spending 25 years waiting for justice."
Santa Clara University Law professor Gerald Uelmen, who oversaw a state commission that advised lawmakers on capital punishment in 2008, said the new proposal contained provisions that were legally vulnerable to challenge and could raise costs without speeding up executions.
Uelmen's commission determined that a lack of lawyers who are willing to handle legally mandated capital appeals was the primary bottleneck in the death penalty system. The proposed initiative provides no more money to hire lawyers for appeals and simply shifts the judicial burden from the state's top court to the lower courts, Uelmen said.
Lawyers appointed by the intermediate courts of appeal to handle non-death-penalty cases would be required under the proposal to take on capital appeals as well. Uelmen said that provision would drive away qualified lawyers from taking any kind of case by appointment.
"This would muck up the system so much that it just might fall down of its own weight," he said. "It doesn't fix anything. It just makes the situation worse."
But Scheidegger said the measure would make it easier to find lawyers because they would not have to meet as many qualifications. For example, a former prosecutor without any defense experience could be hired for a death row appeal if the measure passed, he said.
Chris Orrock, a consultant to the campaign, said it has raised about $350,000 so far and plans to rely heavily on volunteers from law enforcement to gather signatures. Signature-gathering campaigns for initiatives typically cost $750,000 to $2 million, and fundraisers are planned, he said. About 807,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify the measure and the campaign hopes to obtain as many as 1.2 million by the end of April or early May, he said.
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, a sponsor of the unsuccessful 2012 measure to end the death penalty, said the new proposal, if passed, would trigger litigation that would cost the state millions of dollars. "I don't think there is a prayer of a chance this is going to pass," Garcetti said.