First, abolish the death penalty

This page has a long history of opposing the death penalty. As far back as 1971, before the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole had been devised, we were pining for such a choice. If there were a way to ensure that convicted killers would remain in prison for life, a member of The Times’ editorial board wrote during the Nixon administration, “would it not be better to forgo, in some humility about the limitations of human judgment, the imposition of the ultimate punishment? We are inclined to think it would.”

We are still so inclined. So when an activist group called SAFE California submitted 800,000 signatures to election authorities this month for a November ballot measure to end capital punishment in the Golden State, it seemed we were headed for one of the easiest endorsement decisions we’ve been confronted with in years. It still may be, though the measure contains a provision we wish it didn’t.

The so-called SAFE California Act would do two things we wholeheartedly support: It would change the maximum penalty imposed by California courts from death to life without parole, and it would retroactively apply that same penalty to inmates currently on death row. But it doesn’t stop there. It would also order the state to transfer $30 million a year for three years to municipal police and prosecutors “for the purpose of increasing the rate at which homicide and rape cases are solved.”


Although it’s true that eliminating the death penalty could save more than $100 million a year, this kind of ballot-box budgeting is one cause of California’s annual budget nightmare, imposing a straitjacket on lawmakers when revenues fall and making it impossible for them to set reasonable funding priorities because money is legally committed to specific programs. Moreover, at a time when funding for schools and welfare is being slashed, law enforcement agencies remain among the very few fiscally healthy government operations statewide. The proposed fund is a populist ploy aimed at winning the support of tough-on-crime voters, and it’s bad policymaking, which is why we’ll have to carefully consider whether to back the initiative (presuming it has enough verified signatures to qualify for the ballot) this fall.

Meanwhile, though, the initiative presents an opportunity to reiterate why capital punishment is bad for American justice, bad for minorities, bad for respecters of the Constitution, bad for this country’s international image and bad for every taxpayer in California. All while doing nothing to deter murderers.

This page has offered up many reasons over the years for eliminating death row, but one argument tops them all: The criminal justice system is not infallible. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 140 death-row inmates have been exonerated across the U.S. since 1973. Luckily, they were all freed before they were executed. It is likely that others haven’t been so fortunate; there is ample reason to believe, for instance, that Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly burning his daughters to death in an arson fire, was innocent. When convicts are sentenced to prison for life, you can set them free if they’re later exonerated; that’s not an option after they’ve undergone lethal injection.

Then there’s the issue of race. After researchers in North Carolina found that black potential jurors were dismissed at twice the rate of whites in death-penalty cases, the state passed a law that allows all death-row inmates to challenge their convictions on the basis of racial bias. But the problem goes way beyond jury selection, and it isn’t confined to North Carolina. Voluminous research has shown that courts are far likelier to impose the death penalty when murder victims are white, including a 2005 study in California that found that homicides involving white victims were 3.7 times more likely to result in a death sentence than cases involving black victims, and 4.7 times likelier than cases with Latino victims.

Meanwhile, executions in California and other states have been stalled for years as courts wrestle with the question of whether lethal-injection methods represent unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. While lawyers quibble over which is the most painless drug cocktail, the answer seems obvious: There is no humane way to execute someone. The Supreme Court has been highly inconsistent in rulings on whether the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment. We think it clearly does.

Speaking of delays, California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of the aforementioned legal concerns. But that doesn’t mean it’s not spending money on appeals, housing for death-row inmates and other costs of capital punishment, to the tune of about $4 billion since 1978 — that’s about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then.

Not only is capital punishment a taxpayer’s nightmare, it’s an international embarrassment. Most developed nations have long rejected it as an outdated and barbaric practice, leaving the United States in the company of such human rights garden spots as China, Sudan and Syria.

So what do we get in exchange for all these problems? Some death-penalty supporters believe it deters crime, but that has never been conclusively demonstrated to be true, and there’s reason to believe it isn’t. Crime statistics show that the per-capita rate of homicide and other violent crime is highest in the South, the region that carries out the most executions. Then there is the feeling of closure that citizens, and especially the families of murder victims, derive when ultimate retribution is visited upon killers. Yet the legal delays that ensure that most death-row inmates will die of natural causes renders this a false hope in the majority of cases.

We’re still not sure if November’s ballot measure is the way to get it done, but we’re certain that it’s well past time for California, and the rest of the country, to kill the death penalty.