Editorials

It’s a question of conscience for Props 62, 66

A corrections officer escorts an inmate back to his cell in East Block, a five-level facility that houses approximately 500 condemned inmates at San Quentin State Prison on Tuesday, December. 29, 2015, in San Quentin, Calif.
A corrections officer escorts an inmate back to his cell in East Block, a five-level facility that houses approximately 500 condemned inmates at San Quentin State Prison on Tuesday, December. 29, 2015, in San Quentin, Calif. Sacramento Bee file

Those who take another’s life in a way that merits California’s death penalty often lack remorse, guilt or anything approaching empathy. They have no conscience.

But what about the rest of us?

Do we put ourselves on the same plane? Is our thirst for revenge so overpowering that it blinds us to the injustices implicit in carrying out our state’s most severe and irreversible punishment?

The death penalty is inhumane, counterproductive and costly. We recommend voting yes on Proposition 62 to abolish it, commuting all death sentences to life without parole. We also urge voters to reject Proposition 66, which would limit appeals and expedite executions.

We are not urging pity or sympathy for the 747 murderers on death row. We have none. They can die of old age in those cells for all we care; many already are.

Since the penalty was reinstated in 1978, California has sentenced 930 to death. Of those, 15 have been executed; 104 have died of natural causes, suicide or drug overdoses; and 64 got reduced sentences. The execution of the rest has been delayed, mainly because California – trying to ensure innocent people will not die – guarantees a series of appeals. If the death penalty continues, so must the appeals.

Why? Because justice in America is not perfect. Newsweek reports 144 people waiting on death row since 1977 have been exonerated, meaning 4.1 percent of all those condemned are likely innocent. Even if California wrongfully executes only half as many as the national average, 15 of those awaiting death are not guilty. But which 15?

In a decade, Texas has killed at least three men later proved innocent of their crimes. That’s the same state that proponents of Proposition 66, the death penalty accelerator, would have us emulate. We believe our results would be very similar.

Wrongly condemned prisoners have been exonerated in 26 states including 26 in Florida, 20 in Illinois, 13 in Texas and three in California.

Who are the condemned? More than half are African American, pointing to a racial bias, but not the only bias. Riverside County has only 6 percent of our population, but has sent 89 people (highest in the nation) to death row – 12 percent of the state’s total.

The death penalty can’t be undone. That’s why six states have, essentially, imposed death penalty moratoriums, California included. Proposition 62 just makes it permanent.

Many believe it is cheaper just to execute those condemned. But saving a little silver never is a good enough reason for ending a life. Besides, a 2012 study by a judge says shuttering death row would save the state $170 million a year.

Proposition 66 pledges to reduce pressure on California’s Supreme Court and cut costs by limiting appeals. We don’t believe it. Neither does the legislative analyst, who says it will cost tens of millions of dollars each year to find enough attorneys to handle expedited appeals.

Still, some crimes are so hideous that only death seems a suitable punishment. We despise the four men on death row who took part in the Salida massacre in 1990. The world would be better without Cuitlahuac “Tao” Rivera, who killed Merced officer Stephan Gray in 2004, or without Huber Mendoza, who killed three in Modesto. And, of course, Scott Peterson, convicted of murdering his pregnant wife on Christmas Eve. But revulsion does not justify killing.

Vote for Proposition 66, and deadly mistakes will be made. Pass Proposition 62, and at least our conscience will be clear.

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