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California Faces Opposing Ballot Initiatives On Death Penalty


Voters in Nebraska, Oklahoma and California will consider ballot measures dealing with capital punishment. California's Proposition 62 would get rid of the death penalty altogether. Another ballot measure would keep the death penalty in place and also speed up the process by limiting prisoners' appeals. Scott Shafer from KQED in San Francisco explains.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: It was 11 years ago when Dionne Wilson's husband, a local police officer, was shot and killed while answering a public disturbance call. Wilson begged the jury to deliver the death penalty to her husband's killer.

DIONNE WILSON: At the time, my first thought was, he just needs to die. That's it. And I wanted it to happen right then.

SHAFER: And when the jury sentenced him to death, she was elated. But as time went by, she felt let down when nothing really changed.

WILSON: Because I was still full of vengeance, still full of hatred and anger and it had nowhere to go.

SHAFER: Since then, Dionne Wilson has had a change of heart. She supports Proposition 62, the ballot measure to end capital punishment in California. It would make life in prison without the possibility of parole the toughest penalty for first-degree murder. Most prosecutors here, including Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, say a death sentence is appropriate given the nature of some crimes.

ANNE MARIE SCHUBERT: We're talking about well over 200 children. We're talking about police officers - 44, 45 police officers that have been killed in line of duty. We're talking about women that have been kidnapped, raped and tortured. We're talking about serial killers, mass killers.

SHAFER: Shubert is supporting an alternate ballot measure, Prop 66. She says it would shorten the legal appeals process in several ways.

SCHUBERT: The most significant one is getting - expanding the pool of lawyers so these individuals don't wait seven years just to get a lawyer.

SHAFER: But critics of Prop 66, including Santa Clara University law professor Ellen Kreitzberg, say speeding up appeals with lawyers who may not have handled death penalty appeals increases the chance of executing an innocent person.

ELLEN KREITZBERG: The danger with 66 is it does limit and narrow the ability to present newly discovered evidence, which is how most of these innocence claims are presented in court.

RAYMOND LEWIS: I've asked to be executed by stopping my appeals, but my attorneys and them refused to do so. They don't believe in that. They don't believe in giving in to the system.

SHAFER: That's Raymond Lewis. He's one of more than 700 inmates on California's death row. Lewis has been here at San Quentin prison since 1991 when he was convicted of a brutal murder in Fresno. To him, this is no way to live. He's ready for his death sentence to be carried out, if only his attorneys would let him.

LEWIS: What they fail to realize - I'm the one that has to endure this each and every day. To me, this is the hardest part. Dying is easy.

SHAFER: Since 1978 when California reinstated capital punishment, almost 900 death sentences have been handed down, but only 13 inmates have been executed - the last one, more than a decade ago. That's when a federal judge stopped executions until California revised its lethal injection procedure. That still hasn't happened. The decades of delays frustrate crime victims' families, including Kate Riggins. Every day, she lives with what happened to her son John and his girlfriend 36 years ago.

KATE RIGGINS: They were kidnapped. And they were taken and left in a ditch to die with their throats slit.

SHAFER: Today, Kate Riggins and her husband, Richard, are now both in their 80s. They want California's broken death penalty system fixed. Richard Riggins doesn't expect to witness the execution of his son's killer, but he'd like to die thinking it will eventually be carried out.

RICHARD RIGGINS: I don't really think even the death penalty is adequate retribution. I mean, your loved ones are gone forever.

SHAFER: Polls show both Propositions 62 and 66 falling short of passing. So it's possible that California's dysfunctional death penalty will be neither fixed nor abolished.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer
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