Yes on the SAFE California Act

Carlos DeLuna was, in all likelihood, murdered by the state of Texas on Dec. 7, 1989.

It’s hard to come to any other conclusion after reading an exhaustive analysis of his case published online by a Columbia law school professor and his students. And he may not be the only innocent death row inmate executed by that notably bloodthirsty state. Cameron Todd Willingham, a man whose conviction for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters was based on spectacularly shoddy forensics work, was injected with a death cocktail on Feb. 17, 2004.

This should never happen in California. In November, voters will have a chance to ensure that it doesn’t.

ENDORSEMENTS: The Times’ recommendations for Nov. 6


Ordinarily, this page doesn’t endorse ballot initiatives until shortly before an election, but the SAFE California Act isn’t an ordinary ballot measure. It is the culmination of a movement that has been building for many years to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. With one vote, Californians can solve a host of problems bedeviling its law enforcement system: the spiraling costs of incarceration and appeals for death row inmates, the legal tangles over methodology that have stalled executions in this state since 2006, and the unfairness built into a system in which convicts are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims were white. And, more important, eliminating the death penalty would end the risk that the hands of all Californians will be stained with the blood of an innocent.

The Death Penalty Information Center lists 140 people sentenced to death who were later exonerated. It has been less successful in proving the innocence of people who have actually been executed, but a 436-page study in an upcoming issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review makes a very strong case on behalf of DeLuna, who went to his death insisting that another man, Carlos Hernandez, was the killer of gas station attendant Wanda Lopez. Prosecutors claimed they found no evidence of Hernandez’s existence, though he was well known to Corpus Christi police, had a history of attacking women and repeatedly confessed to acquaintances that he’d knifed Lopez to death.

How many others like DeLuna are there? There is no way of knowing. There is also no reason to risk another one. It has not been proved that the death penalty deters murder any more than a sentence of life without parole, and the latter is just as protective of society. An inmate serving life can be set free if evidence of his innocence emerges, unlike inmates who have been executed. That’s why we heartily urge a “yes” vote on the SAFE California Act, which has qualified for the November ballot but hasn’t yet been assigned a proposition number.

To be sure, there are elements of the measure we don’t like, particularly its demand that $30 million from the state’s general fund be set aside annually for three years, to be allocated by the attorney general among municipal law enforcement agencies to speed up homicide and rape investigations. We seldom approve of such ballot-box budgeting. Nonetheless, three years is a short time frame, and $90 million is a small portion of the amount California will save by eliminating the death penalty.

How much is that? Opinions differ. According to a study by U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals JudgeArthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, capital punishment costs the state $184 million a year. Yet W. Scott Thorpe, head of the California District Attorneys Assn., says it’s impossible to accurately assess the financial impact, and that eliminating the death penalty will actually increase some costs — some suspects who under the current system plead guilty to avoid the death penalty would instead insist on a costly trial. He has a point, but it’s undeniably true that capital punishment costs millions because of the high-security housing of death row inmates and the lengthy appeals process. Our cash-strapped state would be far better off without it.

If juries and courts were infallible, the death penalty might seem a reasonable punishment for society’s most brutal killers. They aren’t. In the absence of certainty, which is impossible to achieve, it is more ethical to impose less permanent sentences.