Poll shows Cal­i­for­ni­ans con­flicted on death penalty

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Phil Wil­lon

SACRA­MENTO — Cal­i­for­ni­ans nar­rowly sup­port Gov. Gavin New­som’s mora­to­rium on death row ex­e­cu­tions but they op­pose abol­ish­ing the death penalty out­right, a new poll shows.

The find­ings of­fer some po­lit­i­cal af­fir­ma­tion for the Demo­cratic gover­nor who, af­ter calling the death penalty im­moral and un­just, stirred up con­tro­versy in March by is­su­ing tem­po­rary re­prieves to more than 700 in­mates on death row.

Con­ducted for the Los An­ge­les Times by UC Berkeley’s In­sti­tute for Gov­ern­men­tal Stud­ies, the poll found that 52% of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers backed New­som’s de­ci­sion to grant a blan­ket re­prieve to all con­demned in­mates on death row, com­pared with 48% who op­posed the gover­nor’s ac­tion.

The par­ti­san divide was sub­stan­tial, with 72% of Democrats sup­port­ing the mora­to­rium and 85% of Re­pub­li­cans against it.

But the sur­vey also shows that a ma­jor­ity of Cal­i­for­ni­ans sup­port cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Just over 61% of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers said they sup­ported keep­ing the death penalty as a “pos­si­ble pun­ish­ment for se­ri­ous crimes,” com­pared with 39% who said it should be abol­ished, the poll found.

That might not por­tend well for a pro­posed 2020 statewide bal­lot mea­sure that would end ex­e­cu­tions and re­place death sen­tences with life im­pris­on­ment with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. Just over 46% of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers sup­port the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment but a ma­jor­ity, 53%, op­pose it, the poll found.

Shilpi Agar­wal, a staff at­tor­ney with an ex­per­tise in crim­i­nal jus­tice at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, said the sup­port for both the death penalty and the mora­to­rium may be be­cause of a dif­fer­ence in how peo­ple feel about cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in the­ory ver­sus how they see it be­ing car­ried out.

“A ma­jor­ity of peo­ple rec­og­nize that it is a bro­ken sys­tem in prac­tice and for that rea­son a mora­to­rium is ap­pro­pri­ate,” she said.

When an­nounc­ing the mora­to­rium on ex­e­cu­tions, New­som ar­gued that the death penalty dis­crim­i­nates against de­fen­dants who are poor, men­tally ill, African Amer­i­can or Latino. He also noted that death row in­mates in Cal­i­for­nia and other states have been ex­on­er­ated.

Poll­ster Mark DiCamillo of the Berkeley In­sti­tute for Gov­ern­men­tal Stud­ies said the sur­vey re­sults could in­di­cate that those ar­gu­ments may have been con­vinc­ing enough for Cal­i­for­ni­ans to back the mora­to­rium.

A ma­jor­ity of vot­ers sur­veyed, how­ever, did not sup­port per­ma­nently abol­ish­ing the death penalty, prob­a­bly be­cause of aware­ness of slay­ing suspects such as Joseph James DeAn­gelo Jr., charged with killing at least 13 peo­ple and ac­cused of rap­ing more than 50 women in the Golden State Killer case, DiCamillo said.

“There’s a cer­tain class of crime that is so heinous that the pub­lic just wants to re­serve the right for death,” DiCamillo said.

Pre­serv­ing the death penalty was fa­vored by a ma­jor­ity of men and women and across age groups, in­comes and re­gions of Cal­i­for­nia. A ma­jor­ity of reg­is­tered Democrats, African Amer­i­can vot­ers and Cal­i­for­ni­ans with post­grad­u­ate de­grees op­posed the death penalty, the sur­vey found.

Kent Schei­deg­ger, le­gal di­rec­tor of the pro-death penalty Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Le­gal Foun­da­tion, said sup­port for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment has been con­sis­tent in re­cent years.

That point was most re­cently proved in 2016, when Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers re­jected a bal­lot mea­sure to abol­ish cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and ap­proved an­other to ex­pe­dite the ap­peals process. Lead­ing up to that elec­tion, cam­paign ads by prodeath penalty groups high­lighted mur­ders com­mit­ted by death row in­mates.

“It’s one thing to talk about this is­sue in the ab­stract and it’s quite an­other when you know the ac­tual facts of what peo­ple re­ally did,” Schei­deg­ger said. “That af­fects peo­ple’s de­ci­sion, and it should be­cause that’s re­ally what it’s all about.”

Still, sup­port for the death penalty has steadily de­clined in Cal­i­for­nia. Thirty years ago, 82% of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers sup­ported cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and just 14% wanted it abol­ished, ac­cord­ing to a Field Poll.

DiCamillo worked for the Field Poll be­fore mov­ing to the Berkeley in­sti­tute and said that, though the polls used dif­fer­ent method­olo­gies, the word­ing of the death penalty questions on the two polls was iden­ti­cal.

The new poll found Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers were more amenable to a pro­posed bal­lot mea­sure to abol­ish the death penalty and re­place it with life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. The con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment was pro­posed by Assem­bly­man Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, in March and will ap­pear on the 2020 bal­lot if ap­proved by a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­is­la­ture.

Though a slim ma­jor­ity of those polled said they op­posed the mea­sure, Levine is con­fi­dent that Cal­i­for­ni­ans will vote to abol­ish the death penalty be­cause he ex­pects New­som and Demo­cratic lead­ers in the Leg­is­la­ture to make a case in fa­vor of ending cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment that is strong enough to over­come the mes­sag­ing of death penalty sup­port­ers.

“We need moral lead­er­ship to make the case to vot­ers who have oth­er­wise been led to be­lieve that the death penalty makes us safer when we know it doesn’t,” Levine said. “If we lock mur­der­ers up and throw away the key, we still pro­tect vic­tims and their fam­i­lies of those crimes and never risk ex­e­cut­ing some­one who is in­no­cent.”

DiCamillo said the poll re­sults in­di­cate that some death penalty sup­port­ers would back the pro­posed bal­lot mea­sure, prob­a­bly in part be­cause of its as­sur­ance that cur­rent death row in­mates would not leave prison if ex­e­cu­tions were abol­ished. Still, ar­gu­ments against ex­e­cu­tion were not per­sua­sive enough to win ma­jor­ity sup­port in the poll.

“Peo­ple in some ways think that that’s the prefer­able way to go,” DiCamillo said of life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. “But there’s a seg­ment of the pub­lic that be­lieves there will be some way, some­how down the road they will be able to get out.”

The poll, which also asked vot­ers about the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race and other is­sues, sur­veyed 4,435 reg­is­tered vot­ers statewide and was con­ducted on­line June 4-10. The re­sults have an es­ti­mated sam­pling er­ror of roughly 3 per­cent­age points in ei­ther di­rec­tion.

Cal­i­for­nia has ex­e­cuted 13 peo­ple since the U.S. Supreme Court re­in­stated the death penalty in 1976. Dur­ing that time, 80 death row in­mates have died of nat­u­ral causes and 26 have died by sui­cide, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Us­ing his ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Con­sti­tu­tion, New­som in March im­posed a blan­ket re­prieve for all death row in­mates in Cal­i­for­nia and vowed that no ex­e­cu­tions would take place while he served as gover­nor. He also or­dered the death cham­ber at San Quentin State Prison to be closed and sus­pended the state’s ef­forts to de­vise a method of lethal in­jec­tion that would pass con­sti­tu­tional muster.

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