Death Penalty Abolition Bid Quietly Gaining Momentum

Frank Heinz,

All of the debate about tax-hiking ballot initiatives and pensions has obscured the quiet progress of an initiative to abolish the death penalty.

The measure seems almost certain to qualify; organizers say they have 750,000 signatures--and only a half million are required, and those numbers are backed up by my observation of petition circulators, who said that the initaitive easily attracted signatures.

In recent days, the campaign got another boost. Ron Briggs--who along with his father, former State Sen. John Briggs, and other family members organized the successful 1978 ballot initiative that gave the death penalty teeth--wrote an LA Times oped announcing that he -- and his father and brother-in-law -- had changed their minds.

Briggs wrote of the three men:

"Each of us remains a staunch Republican conservative, but our perspectives on the death penalty have changed. We'd thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers. Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers.

"Our initiative was intended to bring about greater justice for murder victims. Never did we envision a multibillion-dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades of extremely expensive incarceration. We thought we would empty death row, not triple its population. Each of us, independently, has concluded that the death penalty isn't working for California."

This is a striking change.

Polling suggest that a majority of Californians support the death penalty (PDF) -- or at least have no moral objections to it.

A generation ago, California had white-hot debates about the subject. But the cost and effectiveness of the system seems to have convinced many that the death penalty is something that Californians can live without.

That may change if a well-funded opposition campaign materializes.

Victims' rights groups do have resources. But loud voices haven't yet raised against this initiative. Even if there are objections, they may have a hard time being heard over the loud public debate over taxes.

So it seems possible that the death penalty in California may end not with a big fight. But with a whimper.

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