- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Californians refused to kill the death penalty for the second time in four years, joining counterparts in more conservative parts of the country who showed that support for the punishment remains strong despite its waning use.

Even as the liberal state’s voters passed a different measure that could free lower-level prisoners early to ease overcrowding, they drew the line on the ultimate punishment and were leaning in favor of a dueling measure that would speed up executions.

“California voters have spoken loud and clear that they want to keep the death penalty intact,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who championed the measure aimed at speeding up lengthy appeals that can exceed 25 years. “This is the ninth time California voters have voted in favor of keeping the death penalty for the most heinous killers.”

With more than 8 million votes counted Wednesday, the repeal effort had failed 54 percent to 46 percent. The reform measure was too close to call with 51 percent support.

In addition to California rejecting a repeal measure, Nebraskans restored capital punishment and Oklahomans made it harder to get rid of the death penalty.

Eight states have abolished the death penalty since 2000, but only through legislative or judicial action. One of those states was Nebraska, where voters Tuesday effectively reversed last year’s repeal by the Legislature.

Only voters in Arizona and twice in Oregon have repealed the death penalty. The most recent of those votes was more than 50 years ago and the earlier ones were a century ago. Voters in both states later reversed course and reinstated it.

The country remains divided on the issue and death sentences are at their lowest level in 40 years, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit critical of capital punishment’s application that does not take an official stance on it.

“The long-term trend is doing away with the death penalty and what we see from juries and courts strongly reflects that,” Dunham said. “But when you’re in the midst of a major climate change whether physical or metaphorical there will be fits and starts and isolated storms that don’t easily fit into that narrative.”

Four years ago, after California voters rejected a similar repeal effort 52 percent to 48 percent, prosecutors and police vowed to come up with a proposal to “mend not end” the death penalty.

The initiative known as Proposition 66 and bankrolled by law enforcement groups such as police and prison guard unions would enact several reforms, including limiting state appeals to five years by expanding the pool of available lawyers and having trial court judges handle appeals that raise issues such as misconduct or incompetent representation.

Meanwhile, death penalty foes launched a similar repeal campaign known as Proposition 62 that was backed by million-dollar donors such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and Stanford computer sciences professor Nicholas McKeown.

Both camps agreed the current system is broken. More than 900 convicted killers have been sent to death row since 1978, but only 13 have been executed in the state. The last execution by lethal injection was more than a decade ago.

If the reform effort prevails, it could begin to do what both initiatives had promised: empty out the nation’s most crowded death row.

“The 10-year drought of executions will be over in the coming year,” said Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has fought to resume executions.

Death penalty opponents pre-emptively asked the California Supreme Court late Wednesday to block the measure from taking effect.

Former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs, whose father wrote the ballot measure that expanded the death penalty in California in 1978, said the reform measure would create upheaval in the courts, cost more money and limit the ability to mount a proper appeal.

Supporters of the measure said the legal move shows why the proposition is necessary because voters “are sick of lawyers who oppose the death penalty constantly undermining the system with lawsuit after lawsuit.”

“It is not at all ironic, and is in fact a slap in the face to the voters, that their response … was to file another lawsuit trying to thwart the will of the voters,” said McGregor Scott, a former district attorney who co-chairs the Yes on 66 Campaign.

The repeal measure, which promised to save taxpayers $150 million a year, would have commuted the death sentences of 750 condemned inmates to life in prison without parole and made that the harshest possible penalty for murder.

The repeal camp conceded defeat but remained steadfast in asserting that capital punishment would eventually be abolished.

“The outcome of the election does not change the fact that California’s death penalty is broken beyond repair and remains a sentence ‘in name only,’” said Matt Cherry, campaign manager for Proposition 62. “The high costs will continue to add up, the backlog of cases will continue to mount and the stories of injustice will continue to be heard.”


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