Vot­ers breathe new life into death penalty

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

This year’s elec­tion re­sults sug­gest that re­ports of the death penalty’s demise may have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Vot­ers in three states — Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­braska and Ok­la­homa — lined up be­hind statewide ini­tia­tives in sup­port of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, sug­gest­ing that the death penalty may be mak­ing a come­back af­ter a 20-year slide.

In Cal­i­for­nia, vot­ers passed Propo­si­tion 66, which stream­lines the ap­peals process, and de­feated Propo­si­tion 62, which would have re­pealed cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and re­placed it with life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role.

Kent Schei­deg­ger, le­gal direc­tor of the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Le­gal Foundation in Sacra­mento, said the re­sults show that pub­lic sen­ti­ment for the death penalty re­mains strong even in solidly blue states, where vot­ers swung for Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“It’s sig­nif­i­cant that this hap­pened in a state that went 2-to-1 for Clin­ton over [Don­ald] Trump,” said Mr. Schei­deg­ger, who helped write Propo­si­tion 66. “Even in very lib­eral states, if you let the peo­ple vote on this is­sue specif­i­cally, they vote for it.”

Propo­si­tion 66 squeaked by with 51 per­cent, while Propo­si­tion 62 lost by 53 per­cent to 47 per­cent.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia filed a law­suit days af­ter the elec­tion chal­leng­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of Propo­si­tion 66, which the cam­paign de­scribed as a “slap in the face to the vot­ers.”

Robert Dun­ham, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, said the elec­tion wasn’t en­tirely one-sided. In Kansas, vot­ers re­tained four Supreme Court jus­tices tar­geted for re­moval af­ter over­turn­ing de­ci­sions in four death row cases.

“Cer­tainly the death penalty pro­po­nents won all the bal­lot mea­sures,” Mr. Dun­ham said. “To try to fig­ure out what the elec­torate is think­ing, I think you need to take a broader view of what hap­pened.”

He pointed to Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton, where Demo­cratic gov­er­nors won re-elec­tion de­spite sup­port­ing mora­to­ri­ums on the death penalty. Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee signed a ban on ex­e­cu­tions in Fe­bru­ary, and Ore­gon Gov. Kate Brown left in place a mora­to­rium es­tab­lished in 2011.

Polls show sup­port for the death penalty has de­clined for decades. A Sept. 29 sur­vey by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found 49 per­cent fa­vored the pun­ish­ment, the low­est in more than 40 years.

At the same time, Mr. Trump won the pres­i­dency on a plat­form that fea­tured law and or­der and called for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment for those who kill police of­fi­cers.

“Any­body killing a police of­fi­cer, the death penalty. It’s go­ing to hap­pen, OK? Mr. Trump said in De­cem­ber dur­ing an ap­pear­ance with the New Eng­land Police Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion.

Said Mr. Dun­ham, “I think we’re un­der­go­ing a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate change.

“And when cli­mate change of any kind oc­curs, there are all sorts of storms in all sorts of di­rec­tions,” he said. “And you can look at in­di­vid­ual events and try to at­tribute cau­sa­tion to them. It’s not al­ways so clear, but the trend re­mains clear.”

Where the ex­e­cu­tion is­sue ap­peared on the bal­lot di­rectly, and not by im­pli­ca­tion as part of a can­di­date’s cam­paign, the death penalty came out on top this year.

In Ne­braska, vot­ers over­turned the state Leg­is­la­ture’s 2015 re­peal by pass­ing Ref­er­en­dum 426, 61 per­cent to 39 per­cent. Gov. Pete Rick­etts, a Repub­li­can who ve­toed the bill but was over­rid­den by the Leg­is­la­ture, do­nated $300,000 to Ne­braskans for the Death Penalty.

The state Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions has since pro­posed chang­ing the three-drug pro­to­col used in lethal in­jec­tions af­ter strug­gling to ob­tain the nec­es­sary drugs be­fore the re­peal. In June 2015, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion ruled that the state could not im­port sodium thiopen­tal, an anes­thetic used in ex­e­cu­tions.

Ok­la­homa vot­ers reaf­firmed their sup­port for the death penalty by ap­prov­ing State Ques­tion 776, which gives state law­mak­ers the au­thor­ity to change ex­e­cu­tion meth­ods if they are ruled in­valid or un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Although op­po­nents ar­gued that the mea­sure changed noth­ing, vot­ers over­whelm­ing ap­proved it by 66 per­cent to 34 per­cent.

Ex­e­cu­tions have been on hold in Ok­la­homa for about two years as a re­sult of state investigations into mix-ups with drugs used in lethal in­jec­tions, no­tably the botched 2014 ex­e­cu­tion of Clay­ton Lock­ett, who took 43 min­utes to die af­ter he was in­jected with an un­tried drug com­bi­na­tion.

The state has had trou­ble ob­tain­ing the re­quired drugs thanks to fac­tors such as the FDA ban and a 2011 Euro­pean Union em­bargo on ex­ports of sodium thiopen­tal used for ex­e­cu­tions.

Cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment op­po­nents scored a vic­tory in Au­gust when the Delaware Supreme Court ruled the law un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it gave judges, not ju­ries, the fi­nal say in im­pos­ing the sen­tence.

Nine­teen states have abol­ished the death penalty, but Mr. Schei­deg­ger said he ex­pects the trend to stall, given that most ex­e­cu­tion-un­friendly states have al­ready acted.

“Op­po­nents of the death penalty have been pick­ing the low-hang­ing fruit,” he said. “They got re­peal bills through a few states with heav­ily Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tures, and ei­ther they didn’t have a ref­er­en­dum process at all or it was dif­fi­cult to get on the bal­lot.”

The only thing stand­ing in the way of a re­peal in Cal­i­for­nia, with its Demo­cratic gov­er­nor and heavy Demo­cratic leg­isla­tive ma­jori­ties, is the will of the vot­ers, he said.

“If Cal­i­for­nia did not have the ini­tia­tive process, I have no doubt the death penalty would have been re­pealed years ago,” Mr. Schei­deg­ger said. “Cal­i­for­nia has the death penalty be­cause the peo­ple can vote on it.”


The ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber at the Ok­la­homa State Pen­i­ten­tiary is back in busi­ness af­ter vot­ers reaf­firmed their sup­port of the death penalty with Ques­tion 776.

Ne­braska Gov. Pete Rick­etts, a Repub­li­can, do­nated $300,000 to Ne­braskans for the Death Penalty af­ter the state Leg­is­la­ture over­rode his veto.

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