Four years after Californians defeated an effort to repeal the death penalty, voters rejected a do-over and were favoring a counter measure that would speed up appeals so condemned murders are actually executed.
With more than 8 million votes counted Wednesday, 54 percent of voters rejected Proposition 62 that would have replaced the death penalty with life in prison without the chance of parole. The dueling reform measure had a narrow lead of about 51 percent.
"California voters have spoken loud and clear that they want to keep the death penalty intact," said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who championed the reform measure. "This is the ninth time California voters have voted in favor of keeping the death penalty for the most heinous killers."
Supporters for both ballot initiatives agreed the current system is broken. More than 900 convicted killers have been sent to death row since 1978, but only 13 have been executed in the state. The last execution by lethal injection was more than a decade ago.
The repeal camp conceded defeat Wednesday morning, but remained steadfast in their belief that capital punishment would eventually be killed.
"The outcome of the election does not change the fact that California's death penalty is broken beyond repair and remains a sentence `in name only,"' said Matt Cherry, campaign manager for Proposition 62. "The high costs will continue to add up, the backlog of cases will continue to mount and the stories of injustice will continue to be heard. We are confident California's failed death penalty will one day come to an end, either from voters or through the courts."
The measures come at a turning point for executions nationally. Capital punishment has been either legislatively or judicially repealed in eight states since 2000 and has mostly been in a steady decline since.
Voters in one of those states, Nebraska, reinstated the death penalty Tuesday -- a year after lawmakers repealed it.
California prosecutors and police launched the reform effort after voters defeated the 2012 repeal attempt 52 percent to 48 percent. Proposition 66 was aimed at speeding up tedious appeals that can take more than 25 years.
Supporters urged voters to "mend don't end" capital punishment so the most evil killers get the punishment determined by jurors and approved by a judge. They said executions would deliver justice to family members of their victims.
Law enforcement groups supported the pro-death penalty side, along with kin of victims. Family and friends of Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve 2002, recently held a news conference to support the measure and oppose the repeal attempt. Her husband, Scott Peterson, has been on death row for 11 years.
Opponents of the death penalty pressed a multi-pronged campaign. They argued that the death penalty is expensive because of the lengthy repeals and eliminating it would save $150 million a year. They also held news conferences with former death row convicts who had their convictions overturned to emphasize the risk of executing an innocent person.
Capital punishment opponents include legal, civil liberties and religious groups along with former President Jimmy Carter and big money donors such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and Stanford computer sciences professor Nicholas McKeown.
Each measure needed a majority of votes to pass. If Proposition 66 does not hang on to its narrow lead, the current system remains in place.