Is There Still a Place for the Death Penalty in California?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

A couple of recent headlines and news reports raise the death penalty issue again, which never seems to be put to rest in California. This week the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty verdict for Scott Peterson in the well-known 2004 killing of his pregnant wife. Previously, the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, was sentenced to life in prison without parole as the gruesome details of his murders and rapes were described in news accounts as victims’ relatives spoke of their pain directly to the killer.

While the Supreme Court’s finding in the Peterson case was based on the fact that the trial judge dismissed potential jurors who said they were against the death penalty but would consider it, the court’s decision allows the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office to retry the penalty portion of the trial. Will the state’s prevailing attitude toward the death penalty influence that decision?

Whether a majority in California oppose the death penalty at this time is debatable. Polls show Californians are against the death penalty, yet a majority of voters said otherwise the last time it was tested in an election.

The March 2019 Public Policy Institute of California poll asked if the penalty for first degree murder should be the death penalty or should it be life without parole. By a two-to-one margin, All Adults supported the parole option. Likely votes were a little closer on the question with 38% in favor of the death penalty and 58% choosing life without parole.

When voters actually had an opportunity to register their feeling on the issue in the 2016 General Election, Proposition 62 to repeal the death penalty lost 53.1% to 47.8%. Proposition 66 to strengthen use of the death penalty passed 51% to 49%.

But that was four years ago. Since then, Governor Gavin Newsom declared the death penalty would not be carried out on his watch, the George Floyd killing generated grave concerns about the justice system and the unequal treatment of Blacks, and progressive prosecutors opposed to the death penalty have had some success in getting elected around the country. 

It would seem the death penalty may not withstand a new push to get rid of it.

But the revelations about high-profile killings and brutal details of suffering felt both by victims and their loved ones may give pause to any movement toward death penalty elimination.

In writing against the death penalty, the Los Angeles Times editorial on a federal court overturning the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, argued among other reasons that the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent for others who would kill. But for supporters of the death penalty, the punishment is not about deterrence but is a penalty, the ultimate penalty for the ultimate crime.

The PPIC question asking about death penalty versus life in prison for all first-degree murder crimes might generate a different response if particularly gruesome or serial killer murderers are the object of a death sentence. How can one listen to those family members of the Golden State Killer’s victims without some feeling that Dangelo did not receive full justice for his deeds?

A reform to the system might consist of the death penalty being reserved for certain brutal crimes which fit a legal category of their own.

That’s why the drama surrounding the Golden State Killer’s confession and the reporting of his crimes and similar cases might stand against a rush to eliminate the death penalty the next time the voters are called upon to do so.

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