Californian death penalty fight goes on, despite vote

Anti-death-penalty-campai-010A renewed battle to repeal the death penalty in California has begun, days after residents voted to keep capital punishment in the state. Proposition 34 – which would have seen capital punishment scrapped – was rejected by 53% of voters on Tuesday. Both pro and anti-capital punishment campaigners now expect that Californians will be asked again either to abolish the death penalty or to reform the state’s legal structure in order to get executions carried out more quickly.

The defeat came as a huge blow to capital punishment abolitionists who yearned for the most significant victory for a generation. Campaigners across the US hoped a yes vote for Proposition 34 on 6 November would provide a boost to their efforts and send a warning note to the other 32 states that still hand out the punishment.

California has the highest number of prisoners awaiting execution of any US state, with 724 death row inmates. The next largest total is in Texas, where there are 407. A moratorium on executions has been in place in California for nearly seven years.

Confusion and delays have been common in the state since a federal judge put executions on hold in early 2006 until prison officials adopt new lethal injection procedures to ensure no inmate suffers “cruel and unusual” pain. It is estimated it will be months, if not years, before the execution of the next death row inmate because of likely legal wrangling. If obstacles relating to to the method of execution are removed, however, at least 14 inmates who have exhausted their legal appeals could face immediate execution. The state has executed 13 inmates overall since 1978.

McGregor Scott, the former US attorney for Sacramento and co-chair of the opposition campaign, called for a reform to executions streamlining the appeals process and scrapping the state’s three-drug cocktail in favour of a single-drug lethal injection. “The problems with delay and expense of California’s death penalty are entirely fixable,” he said.

Death penalty abolitionists argued that the closeness of the vote – 53% of residents voted in favour of keeping the death penalty compared with 71% who voted to impose the penalty in 1978 – meant that voters were moving towards abolition. Campaign manager Natasha Minsker said there had been a “dramatic shift” in California voters’ view of the death penalty and the fight to have the penalty repealed would continue. “The results show the state is equally divided,” she said. “We are going to continue moving forward with the voters.”

San Mateo county district attorney Steve Wagstaffe is next week expected to ask a judge to bypass state and federal court orders halting executions to allow the state to immediately put condemned killer Robert Fairbank to death with a single lethal drug, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “A lot of things slowed down with this initiative on the horizon,” Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor told the paper. “The pregnant question going forward in California is, OK, with (Proposition 34) cleared out, do we get a serious progression toward executions and, then, what’s the public response to that going to be?”

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