Proposition 34: A ‘Yes’ too far?

Image credit: The Guardian

Barack Obama occupies the White House, the Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Democrats have the upper hand in the Senate. No wonder stock markets plunged in the wake of the recent US elections as investors came face-to-face with the reality that nothing had changed in Washington.

Unlike in Washington, however, where Republicans began to nurse their figurative wounds, the maintenance of the status quo in California sounded the literal death knell for 727 individuals. The state of California, largely ignored by the media during the Presidential campaign, no doubt for its ‘un-swing’ status, had the opportunity on 6th November to dispense with the death penalty. Inexcusably, otherwise liberal-leaning Californians, nearly 60% of whom supported Obama on the same ballot paper, missed this opportunity to abandon such an expensive, out-dated and barbaric practice.

Proposition 34, also known as Safe California, would have repealed the California death penalty statute. It would have commuted the sentences of the state’s 727 death-row inmates (the highest number of prisoners awaiting execution of any US state) to life without parole. It would have made California the first state, not only in the USA but across the world, to abolish the death penalty by a popular vote. In short, a ‘yes’ vote for Proposition 34 would have reinforced California’s progressive reputation.

Indeed, it was once commented, that “As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future”. It would seem that the majority of Californians, unable to bring themselves to do away with capital punishment on 6th November, disagrees. Instead, narrowly defeated by a vote of 52.8% to 47.2%, the failure of Proposition 34 has reinvigorated the campaign of those Californians seeking to reform their state’s legal structure in order to realise executions more quickly.

A moratorium on executions has been in place in California since December 2006, when District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel declared the state’s lethal injection protocols to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. By scrapping the three-drug cocktail in favour of a single injection, however, opponents of Proposition 34, including McGregor Scott, the former US attorney for Sacramento, believe those prisoners who have exhausted their legal appeals could now face immediate execution. Prisoners including Robert Fairbank, who San Mateo County is imminently expected to order to death by a single lethal drug.

The state’s rejection of Safe California is only made more despicable by the fact that it currently heads the USA in exonerations of the wrongfully convicted. The California Wrongful Convictions Project found that 214 wrongful convictions have been thrown out since 1989. To put this another way, the state’s decrepit criminal justice system has come at the cost of 1, 313 years of freedom for the mistakenly incarcerated. Take Francisco “Franky” Carrillo who, sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison for a murder he did not commit, was exonerated only after 20 years behind bars. But whilst such innocents as “Franky” have been released, capital punishment affords no such ‘luxury’.

The only glimmer of hope for California’s 727 death-row inmates rests in the narrowness of margins by which Proposition 34 was defeated. The 52.8% of Californian residents who rejected the proposal compares favourably with the 71% who voted in favour of the death penalty in 1978. There can be no denying that California, no matter how slowly, is moving towards abolition.

Still, in an election where the states of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington all gave the thumbs-up to same-sex marriage, where Colorado, Washington and Oregon approved the recreational use of marijuana, where Wisconsin elected the first openly gay senator, California’s decision leaves a definite question mark hanging over America’s apparent embrace of a more progressive outlook. As people begin to doubt America’s position as a centre-right nation, California’s decision suggests that, at heart, it still is.