California Justices Criticize “Dysfunctional” Death Penalty as Poll Shows Public Overwhelmingly Prefers Life Sentence

Within two weeks of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he was halting executions in the state, the decision to issue the moratorium has been bolstered from two unrelated and independent sources. A statewide poll underway at the time of Newson’s moratorium announcement and released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) on March 27, 2019 found that by a record 2:1 margin, Californians preferred life without possibility of parole over the death penalty as the punishment for first-degree murder. Then on March 28, in the first post-moratorium death-penalty decision issued by the California Supreme Court, two justices sharply criticized the state’s death-penalty system as “dysfunctional,” “expensive,” and unworkable.  

PPIC had just started its annual multi-topic poll on Californians and their government when Governor Newsom announced the moratorium on executions, and the Policy Institute added a question about the death penalty to the poll. PPIC found that, among all adults, 62% said life in prison with no possibility of parole (LWOP) should be the punishment for those who commit first-degree murder, while 31% preferred the death penalty. Among likely voters, 58% preferred LWOP versus 38% who favored the death penalty. Over the last 19 years, the percentage of Californians who prefer LWOP has risen from 47% to this year’s record high, while support for the death penalty has fallen from 49% to this year’s record low. Democrats (76%-21%) and Independents (56%-36%) overwhelmingly preferred LWOP, while Republicans preferred the death penalty by 64%-32%. In the 2016 election, California voters defeated a referendum to abolish capital punishment and narrowly passed Proposition 66, a referendum that claimed it would speed up executions. “This is a case where public opinion continues to shift, and shift support away from the death penalty,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The campaigns in 2012 and 2016 were very effective in bringing up examples of horrible crimes that were committed, and it raised questions in people’s minds about whether they were prepared to make that decision. Voters are always more willing to vote ‘no’ than ‘yes,’” he said.

In People v. Potts, the first death-penalty opinion released since Gov. Newsom’s announcement, two justices on the California Supreme Court issued a scathing rebuke to California’s death-penalty system. Justice Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, agreed with the court that, under the law, Thomas Potts’ death sentence should be upheld, but criticized the state’s death penalty as “an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all.” Liu wrote: “A death sentence in California has only a remote possibility of ever being carried out. As leaders of the judiciary have long observed, the death penalty presents serious challenges for the fair and efficient administration of justice. For decades, those challenges have not been meaningfully addressed.” The Potts case, the justices said, demonstrates the futility of California’s death penalty. Potts was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. “Now, 21 years later, we affirm the judgment on direct appeal, but there is more litigation to come in the form of habeas corpus petitions in state and federal courts. This timeline is typical of our capital cases.” The justices called Proposition 66 an unworkable proposal that “promised more than the system can deliver.”  

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NEW POLL—Only 25% of North Carolina Voters Favor the Death Penalty as Punishment for Murder

According to new polling results, support for capital punishment in North Carolina has fallen dramatically, with only 25% of voters saying they prefer the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. The poll, conducted the last week of January 2019 by Public Policy Polling, found that nearly three quarters of North Carolina voters rejected capital punishment for people convicted of murder, with 35% preferring a combination of life without parole plus a requirement to work and pay restitution; 19% preferring life without parole; 12% favoring a lengthy prison term, plus restitution, with the possibility of parole; and 6% favoring a lengthy prison term, without restitution. When asked whether North Carolina should keep the death penalty or replace it with life without parole, a majority of North Carolina voters (51%) said the state should replace the death penalty, while 44% said the state should keep it. Six percent said they were not sure.

The poll also disclosed that North Carolina voters have serious concerns about the administration of capital punishment in the state. 70% said it was likely that North Carolina has executed an innocent person. 24% said it was unlikely the state had done so. 57% said they believed it is likely that racial bias affects whether a person is sentenced to death and 75% believe defendants should be able to present evidence that racial discrimination affects capital trials. 39% said racial bias was unlikely to have affected sentencing and 18% would deny a defendant the opportunity to present evidence of bias. North Carolina voters also favored efforts to reform the state's death penalty. More than two-thirds (68%) said they favored banning the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness. 61% favored requiring the courts to reexamine death sentences imposed in North Carolina cases tried before the state enacted a series of reforms designed to protect defendants’ rights, provide more competent representation, and ensure fair trials. Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced before these reforms.

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