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Capitol Journal: Undecided on the dueling death row propositions? Then hear me out: Vote for both

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Under Proposition 62, all the convicted killers would be dispatched to the general prison population.

Two diametrically opposed death penalty measures are on the California ballot and voters must choose between them. Or must they?

Call me nuts, but they could choose both. Then one might just pass.

If both passed, the one with the most votes would become law.

Either of them passing would be a lot better than if neither did. One would end California’s busted death penalty. The other would mend it, or try to.

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The absolute worst thing would be if neither proposal passed. Then California would remain stuck with a dysfunctional capital punishment system that gobbles tons of tax dollars while coddling the worst murderers.

The current law is the epitome of government waste and abuse.

The ballot options, both of them citizen initiatives, are these:

— Proposition 62: It would abolish California’s phantom death penalty and replace it with a realistic sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

— Proposition 66: This would expedite executions by limiting the number of appeals and the time allowed for them. More lawyers would be hired to handle the appeals.

Both sides agree on one thing: This state’s death penalty system is broken.

“The promise of death is illusionary,” says former U.S. Atty. Don Heller, who wrote California’s capital punishment law 38 years ago and later turned against it, concluding it’s too costly and is administered unfairly.

But locking up a murderer for life with no possibility of parole, Heller says, “is a promise that the state can keep.”

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On the other side, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos, a Proposition 66 campaign co-chairman, says: “I may sound passionate about this, but I can’t imagine [murderers] being allowed life without parole, having conjugal visits…. They’re the worst of the worst.”

He points out that prosecutors seek the death penalty for only roughly 1% of murderers.

They must have done more than murdered. They must have also, for example, raped, tortured, kidnapped or killed a cop, or killed several people. And perhaps done lots of gruesome brutalizing you won’t read about in a family newspaper.

The fact that California’s death penalty is broken is irrefutable.

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The state has executed only 13 murderers since it enacted the present death penalty in 1978, and none since 2006. Do the math: Each San Quentin execution has cost, on average, about $385 million.

That’s a lot of class-size reductions, college tuition, healthcare for the poor and cop hires.

Five years ago, a telling study was conducted by a U.S. appellate court judge and a Loyola Law School professor.

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The study found that the state had spent $4 billion more on capital punishment than what it would have if the condemned killers had been sentenced to life without parole. That figure has since been updated to $5 billion.

Updates from Sacramento »

The state spends about $55 million alone each year on legal challenges for the condemned. The average lag between conviction and execution is 25 years. That is, when there were executions.

The execution chamber has been shut down for the last decade because a federal judge ruled that California’s three-drug lethal injection was unconstitutional. The state ostensibly has been working on a replacement.

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But Gov. Jerry Brown is a lifelong opponent of the death penalty — although he hasn’t said a peep about these propositions — so no one expects a new execution drug protocol any time soon.

Natural cause is by far the most prevalent way to die on death row. There are currently about 750 condemned killers awaiting execution.

They’re living better than the roughly 125,000 other California inmates. On death row, they’re housed in single cells with personal TVs. They get generous access to the exercise yard, telephones, unlimited subscriptions and free legal services. And they don’t have to work.

Just about everyone else who’s in a California prison is double-bunked and assigned prison jobs.

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Under Proposition 62, all the convicted killers would be dispatched to the general prison population. They’d be forced to work and apply 60% of their chump-change wages to restitution for victims’ families.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates the state eventually would save around $150 million annually.

Proposition 66 would require initial appeals to be heard by the trial court, rather than automatically sent to the state Supreme Court. The trial court decision still could be appealed to a higher court. But the entire appeals process would have to be finished in five years.

More attorneys would be hired, including those without death penalty experience. This would cost money initially, but save in the long term, proponents contend.

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Ramos called a meeting of district attorneys last year and lobbied them to create Proposition 66 in anticipation of Proposition 62. He pointed out that voters rejected a similar death penalty repeal by only four percentage points in 2012.

Anti-death penalty activists contend that Proposition 66, because of its streamlined appeal process, would increase the possibility of executing an innocent person. Unlike in other states, there is no proof of someone innocent ever being executed in California.

Heller calls Proposition 66 another illusion. “There’s no speedy way of doing this,” he says, “unless someone wants to drop a low-level atomic bomb on death row.”

You won’t find me making a moral argument against the death penalty.

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But it seems foolish to keep dumping money down a rat hole and pampering the rats. I’m voting for both measures.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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