California Voters Closely Divided on Death Penalty

After years of steadfast support for the death penalty, California voters are now divided over whether to repeal capital punishment through a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, a new poll has found.
by | September 25, 2012

After years of steadfast support for the death penalty, California voters are now divided over whether to repeal capital punishment through a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, a new poll has found.

Among likely voters, 42 percent would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without possibility of parole, while 45 percent would retain death as a punishment, the survey by the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley found.

The survey found 13 percent of likely voters still undecided, giving interest groups on both sides of the measure incentive to press their cases through Election Day.

The survey, which measures support for Proposition 34, follows a Field Poll last year that also found softening support for the death penalty. In that poll, 48 percent said they preferred that someone convicted of first-degree murder be given life without parole, while 40 percent supported the death penalty.

A "yes" vote on Proposition 34 would eliminate California's death penalty and change all condemned inmates' sentences to life without any possibility of parole.

Supporters of the measure, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and some prominent onetime supporters of capital punishment, say that doing away with the death penalty could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

They note that California has not executed anyone for six years and that 17 other states have moved to do away with the death penalty.

Opponents of the measure, including law enforcement groups and prosecutors, say the cost savings are a mirage, and that streamlining the appeals process could lead to an increase in executions and save costs of incarceration.

Both sides now have six weeks to convince enough of the undecided to prevail.

"You need to get to 50 percent plus one to pass this thing, so it's going to be interesting to see how voter opinions evolve," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said.

Polls on law-and-order measures in California sometimes change quickly once a campaign begins. In 2004, a measure to soften the state's "three-strikes" sentencing law had support from two-thirds of voters three weeks before the election, according to the Field Poll at the time. But opponents mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign featuring then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the measure, Proposition 66, lost by six percentage points.

The death penalty poll, which is estimated to be accurate within 4.3 percentage points 95 percent of the time, found the strongest support for repealing capital punishment among liberals, African Americans and voters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Conservatives and voters in inland counties and Northern California apart from the Bay Area were the measure's greatest opponents.

Among likely voters, men were almost evenly split, with 44 percent supporting repeal and 45 percent in favor of keeping death as a penalty. Women were less likely to favor repeal, with 40 percent saying they will vote to do away with capital punishment and 46 percent saying they will oppose the measure.

Some voters who participated in the poll had strong opinions on the measure.

"That's a bunch of crap," Northern California voter Ingrid Norberg said of Proposition 34. "Why should a person go to jail, be able to have food, watch TV, get educated by books when they killed people who no longer have a life?"

"What you oughta do is put them up against the wall and get a gun and shoot the suckers," added Norberg, a Republican.

But Jean Kollmansberger, a Democrat who lives near Fresno, said she will vote for the measure because she is concerned about the possibility of someone being executed who is not guilty.

"We should think a little bit more about what we need to be doing," Kollmansberger said.

Supporters of repealing the death penalty have made cost savings the hallmark of their campaign, and polls over the years have found a shift in voter beliefs over the cost of capital punishment.

A 1989 Field Poll found 56 percent of voters believed the death penalty was cheaper than life in prison compared with 26 percent who thought a life sentence was less expensive. Last year's poll found 43 percent believed the death penalty was cheaper, while 41 percent said life without parole would cost taxpayers less.

But opponents of repealing the death penalty are not waging their battle simply on costs. The No on 34 campaign is issuing what it calls "case studies" of some of the most heinous offenders on San Quentin's death row.

Monday's study profiled Richard Ramirez, the so-called "Night Stalker," who was convicted in 13 slayings and has been on death row since 1989.

"The very heinous criminals, that is where support for the death penalty is the strongest, there's no question about that," DiCamillo said.

(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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