Over the Hill

Why California voters should repeal the death penalty

Monday’s Tribune said a public-opinion poll showed the majority of California voters want to continue our death penalty.

Those pollsters contacted 1,909 voters statewide, but they missed me. I plan to vote “Yes” in November on replacing the death penalty with life in prison.

I will vote to approve Proposition 62. It would replace capital punishment with a life sentence. Current death-row inmates would be transferred to regular prisons. They would have to work and pay some restitution to victims.

A second capital-punishment proposition is also on November’s ballot. It is Proposition 66. It would continue the death penalty, limit a death-row inmate’s appeals and impose deadlines. It would also require them to work and contribute to restitution. If a poll is taken on Proposition 66, mark me “No.”

There are 747 prisoners living on California’s death row. That exceeds the total number of executions actually carried out during the state’s entire history. There have been 722 California executions, including 709 that happened before 1972. That was the year the state Supreme Court ruled California’s execution procedures were unconstitutional.

The following year, the voters promptly approved a proposition that restored California’s death penalty.

But since then, because of subsequent state and federal court rulings, California has executed only 13 people. Our last execution was 10 years ago.

Maybe the court system is trying to tell us that judges, juries, police officers and district attorneys aren’t infallible. Maybe all those court decisions against death sentences are trying to tell us that innocent people can sometimes be mistakenly convicted of murder and wrongly executed.

That may happen only rarely, but executions are permanent.

There are no do-overs for mistaken executions, but do-overs can be possible with mistaken life sentences.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have decided that the risk of fatal mistakes is just too great. They abolished their death penalties. Those states are Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Delaware’s death penalty is considered to be in flux because the state’s Supreme Court in August ruled that its capital sentencing statute was unconstitutional. Delaware still has prisoners on death row.

California could do worse than to join that group.

The Death Penalty Information Center website says, “States without the death penalty have had consistently lower murder rates.” The website presents impressive charts and says it uses FBI murder rate figures.

I also have another, deeper reason for voting “Yes” on Proposition 62 to abolish the death penalty.

I believe human life is precious. I believe we should always nurture human life, even if it’s warped.

Human life may occasionally need to be confined, but we should never snuff it out.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.