The last inmate executed in California was 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, legally blind and suffering from diabetes, who had his heart stopped with a lethal chemical cocktail more than a decade ago as punishment for a triple homicide he’d ordered from a prison cell a quarter century earlier, McClatchy Newspapers reports. Now, with the death penalty dying across the U.S., the nation is watching California as its voters weigh competing initiatives meant to either revive executions or abolish capital punishment. Several states in recent years ended their death penalties through court decisions or legislation, but California is a test of whether voters think executions are worth trying to save.
“The death penalty system has been so broken for so long in California that it seems there is a uniquely compelling argument for abolition, to say, ‘Let’s just cut our losses,’ ” said Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert. “If abolition can’t succeed in California I have a hard time thinking that it can succeed by plebiscite anywhere.” Proposition 62 on the November ballot would end the death penalty and convert sentences to life without parole. Proposition 66 aims to speed up executions with limits on appeals and deadlines on court rulings. Should both measures pass, the one with the most votes becomes law. California’s decision comes as the death penalty withers elsewhere. There were 28 executions in six states last year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 70 percent decline from the peak in 1998. Reasons include legal challenges to death sentences, botched executions, difficulty obtaining lethal drugs from pharmaceutical companies reluctant to play a role in ending lives, and wrongful convictions.