Californians' Votes on Proposition 34 Count for Much More than the Future of California's Death Penalty

A poll published recently shows that 42 percent of likely voters in California favor Proposition 34, which would replace the death penalty in California with life-without-parole. Roughly the same percentage supports the death penalty. Thirteen percent are undecided.

If those 13 percent have heard any of the debate about California's death penalty, they already know that the state has the largest death row in the country and that those inmates are more likely to die of old age and natural causes than execution. If they've heard anything about Proposition 34, they know that it will save the state $1 billion in the next five years and direct millions of dollars to solving unsolved rapes and murders.

But when we hear the stories of injustice -- defense attorneys arriving at court in an alcohol-induced stupor, men being executed despite grave doubts that they are actually guilty, prosecutors suppressing evidence -- we still associate them with that death penalty down there -- the one that the Southern states carry out.

Not only does California's death penalty have its own problems, but its very existence lends support to death rows in other states. For its own share, California's death penalty is obscenely expensive -- it costs $130 million more per year than life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, a shocking 56 percent of reported rapes and 46 percent of homicides go unsolved every year in this state. We know that innocent men like Franky Carillo, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of a shooting by mistaken eyewitness testimony, have fallen prey to the system's flaws.

Maintaining a capital punishment system in California also sends the message that the death penalty is within the social and moral norms of this country. The very existence of a death penalty here validates the practice in states where the death penalty is a fully operational machine. And the reverse is true also -- if a state like California rejects the death penalty, it sends a strong message about the future of the punishment nationally.

The power of that message is made clear in the case of Dobie Gillis Williams. Sister Helen Prejean told his story in Death of Innocents (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006) and captured here in a 2003 article by Dave Lindorff in Salon:

Dobie Gillis Williams was picked up in a police roundup after a woman was stabbed to death in her bathroom in rural Louisiana in 1987. With an IQ of 65, and a lawyer who was subsequently disbarred for incompetence, Williams was tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death. He twice came within hours of execution, only to have the process stayed, first by the U.S. Supreme Court and a second time by the governor.

A federal judge finally overturned Williams' sentence, citing two errors: Williams had confessed only after a police officer promised Williams he wouldn't get the death penalty, and his attorney never offered any evidence of mitigating circumstances during the sentencing phase of his trial -- evidence that should have included Williams' mental deficit and a childhood of abuse and neglect.

But Williams was executed anyway in 1999, when the notoriously pro-death-penalty 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which serves Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) overturned the district court judge's decision, ruling that the revelation of errors came too late under the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act (EDPA). [sic]

California may not be executing men on a regular basis, but those 13 percent of undecided voters should consider that the death penalty here sustains the penalty everywhere else. Georgia executed Troy Davis. Texas executed the clients of a court-appointed lawyer who kept falling asleep during their trials. And when Louisiana files briefs to the United States Supreme Court arguing that it is permissible to execute defendants like Dobie Williams, it claims a national consensus in favor of the death penalty by pointing to its use in states like California and Pennsylvania.

The vote on November 6 is not just a referendum on whether the one billion dollar governmental program that is the death penalty in California is worth it. It is a referendum on whether Californians stand with Georgia, Texas and Louisiana when they execute Troy Davis, Cameron Todd Willingham and Dobie Williams. It is referendum on whether we will protect innocent people from being executed, stop the waste, and put an end to a system broken beyond repair.

On November 6, California is not just answering that question for itself.