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Californians continue to sour on death penalty, poll finds, feeding momentum to end it

Californians continue to sour on death penalty, poll finds, feeding momentum to end it
The entrance to the East Block of death row at San Quentin State Prison. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A new poll found that Californians, by a 2-to-1 margin, support sentencing first-degree murderers to life in prison rather than the death penalty, an indication that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on executions may align with public sentiment against capital punishment.

The poll results could potentially revive efforts to abolish the death penalty in California, including a proposed constitutional amendment being considered in the state Legislature that could land on the 2020 ballot, and embolden Newsom to take additional action against capital punishment. The Democratic governor already is considering prohibiting any new death sentences in local criminal cases.

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The Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 62% of Californians, in cases of first-degree murder, favored a penalty of life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole, compared with 31% who favored death sentences. Support for the death penalty in the state has steadily declined since 2000, when Californians were evenly divided on the issue, according to the institute’s polling over that time period.

“This is a case where public opinion continues to shift, and shift support away from the death penalty,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive.

However, the survey runs counter to recent statewide votes on capital punishment. Californians rejected proposals to abolish the death penalty in 2016 and 2012.

(Shaffer Grubb / Los Angeles Times Graphics)

Baldassare said the dissonance between recent polls and the outcome of two ballot measures was driven largely by the successful campaigns by death penalty supporters to highlight some of the most brutal and heinous killers on California’s death row.

“The campaigns in 2012 and 2016 were very effective in bringing up examples of horrible crimes that were committed, and it raised questions in people’s minds about whether they were prepared to make that decision,” Baldassare said. “Voters are always more willing to vote ‘no’ than ‘yes.’ ”

In the 2016 election, death penalty supporters aired ads featuring Sandra Friend of Yuba City, whose 8-year-old-son was sexually abused and killed by Robert Boyd Rhoades in the 1990s in what she described as “a parent’s worst nightmare.” Californians in that election not only rejected a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty, Proposition 62, they approved a competing measure to accelerate the appeals process in capital cases, Proposition 66.

Michael Rushford of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the PPIC poll results historically have been misleading since the survey only asked Californians what penalty they favored for “first-degree murder.”

“They should have asked the right question: What should the penalty be for the worst of the worst murderers … not what it should be if they kill someone in a bar fight,” Rushford said.

Rushford said his foundation and some law enforcement organizations, including the California District Attorneys Assn., are looking into what options they may have to challenge the governor’s moratorium on executions. The Republican caucus in the California Senate on Wednesday also issued a scathing rebuke against Newsom’s death penalty moratorium.

The Republicans posted a video on its Facebook page featuring Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1993. The man convicted of killing her, Richard Allen Davis, is on death row.

“The death penalty now is all about Gavin Newsom and what a wonderful guy he is for sparing these poor men that just didn’t get enough hugs from their moms and dads when they were little kids,” Klaas says in the video.

Two weeks ago, Newsom signed an executive order granting a blanket reprieve to all 737 condemned prisoners in California, the state with the largest death row in the nation. Newsom also ordered the dismantling of the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and ended the state’s ongoing efforts to devise a constitutional method for lethal injection.

“My ultimate goal is to end the death penalty in California,” Newsom said, vowing that California will not execute any death row prisoners while he is governor.

The PPIC poll was being conducted when Newsom announced the moratorium, and Baldassare said the pollsters were able to add the death penalty question quickly enough to record the opinions of 1,110 Californians.

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Baldassare said Newsom’s advocacy against the capital punishment could also be a catalyst to increase support for abolishing the death penalty in California. The poll found Newsom’s approval rating to be high among likely voters at 45%, compared to 36% who disapprove. Among Democrats, 65% approve of the job he’s done thus far.

The PPIC poll revealed a sharpening partisan divide over the death penalty, with 76% of Democrats and 56% of independents supporting life imprisonment and 64% of Republicans favoring the death penalty.

That by itself indicates that public support for abolishing the death penalty may continue to increase. California is a solidly Democratic state and GOP voter registration has been on a steady decline, so much so that “no party preference” voters now outnumber Republicans in the state.

The survey found that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole also was favored by both men and women and across a spectrum of ethnic groups, ages and education levels.

California’s divide on the death penalty was narrower among likely voters than it was for the population as a whole. Among likely voters, the survey found that 58% supported life imprisonment for those convicted of first-degree murder, compared with 38% who favored a death sentence.

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On the day Newsom announced his moratorium on executions, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the death penalty in California. The measure will appear on the 2020 ballot if approved by the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the California Legislature.

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