Why do Californians still hunger for blood?
The Pew Research Center recently reported that a survey conducted from Aug. 23 through Sept. 2 found that less than half of all Americans (49 percent) now support the death penalty, and that 42 percent actually oppose it. This is the lowest level of support that Pew has measured on the issue since 1972.
Undoubtedly, this result is due in no small part to the fact that DNA has helped to free more than 150 people wrongly sent to death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
In addition, analyses of capital convictions have repeatedly shown that people of color are more likely to be sentenced to death than White people are.
Yet, despite the evidence mounting against capital punishment and its waning popularity nationwide — and worldwide — Californians would prefer to continue the state-sanctioned killing of our fellow citizens.
On Nov. 8, voters cast their ballots on two statewide ballot measures relating to capital punishment. One, Proposition 66, also known as the “Death Penalty Reform and Savings Initiative,” is as of this writing too close to call. The measure, if passed, would essentially speed up the executions of death-row prisoners.
The other, Prop. 62, also known as the “Repeal of the Death Penalty Initiative,” would have ended capital punishment in California, which is one of 30 states where executions are still legal. But the measure was defeated.
Canada, our neighbor to the north, abolished capital punishment in 1976. Across Europe, the death penalty for crimes committed during peacetime has been abolished in every country excerpt Belarus. However, the United States — California included — remains out of step.
Perhaps there is hope, though. Last year, two members of the United States Supreme Court indicated that the increasingly sporadic application of capital punishment may mean it is now unconstitutional, per the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” sentences.
“Studies indicate that the factors that most clearly ought to affect application of the death penalty — namely, comparative egregiousness of the crime — often do not,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent to the majority opinion in 2015’s Glossip v. Gross. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Breyer’s opinion.)
“Other studies show that circumstances that ought not to affect application of the death penalty, such as race, gender, or geography, often do,” Breyer added. “Numerous studies, for example, have concluded that individuals accused of murdering white victims, as opposed to black or other minority victims, are more likely to receive the death penalty. … Fewer, but still many, studies have found that the gender of the defendant or the gender of the victim makes a not-otherwise-warranted difference.
“Geography also plays an important role in determining who is sentenced to death,” he wrote. “And that is not simply because some States permit the death penalty while others do not. Rather within a death penalty State, the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried.”
As Californians, many of us think of ourselves as progressive and liberal-minded, yet we are continuing a practice that is unfair, immoral, and increasingly makes us seem like barbarians in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Talk to me, readers. You know what I think. I would love to hear how you voted on this issue, and why.
cjoseph [AT] sfweekly.com | Twitter: @cgjoseph | Instagram: yeschanningyes
“Notes From the Intersection” is a column by SF Weekly‘s editor, who lives at the intersection of death penalty opponent, California resident, and many other identities.