In 1986, with tape recorder in hand, I traveled around Southern California interviewing relatives of murder victims and district attorneys and former D.A.s in order to create radio pieces to be used in the campaign to unseat Rose Bird in her confirmation vote as California’s Chief Justice. The major reason that Bird faced the unusual campaign to deny the Supreme Court Chief Justice another term was because of her stand on the death penalty. As Proposition 34 to repeal the death penalty faces voters this election, I wonder how much California voters have changed on the death penalty issue.
In her 10 years as Chief Justice, Bird reviewed 64 capital crime cases and in each case issued a decision to overturn the death penalty. In the retention vote required of the justices every dozen years, Bird was removed from office with an overwhelming 67% vote against her while only 33% voted to retain her.
There was no question where Californians stood on the death penalty issue when Bird was issuing all her decisions on death penalty cases.
Much of the support for Proposition 34 is made on two points: the possibility of condemning an innocent individual to death; and the cost the death penalty imposes on taxpayers.
Opponents take on the cost question by saying that the death penalty can be fixed to bring about cost savings. It doesn’t need to be eliminated. They also appeal to the notion that a heinous crime deserves the ultimate punishment of forfeiting a killer’s life.
While the vote on Bird was not a direct vote on the death penalty, the campaign against her centered on that issue. Voter sensibilities may have changed to a degree over the years, spurred by stories of some innocent people freed from prison, however, Californians often take tough-on- crime positions and the death penalty will probably remain in place after the Prop 34 votes are counted.
The latest Pepperdine University School of Public Policy/California Business Roundtable poll shows the initiative trailing with 42.9% Yes, 48.1% No. When that poll initially began tracking Prop 34, support for the measure was evenly split: 45.5% Yes, 46.7% No.
A day or so after that initial poll was released the horrendous killings in the Aurora, Colorado theater occurred. The next tracking poll showed a significant change in attitude toward Prop 34 with 35.9% supporting the measure, 55.7% opposing.
While the more recent poll has shown a narrowing in the numbers, it’s likely that the death penalty will still be on the books in California after Election Day.