Though it might seem counterintuitive, most of the 725 inmates on California’s Death Row are opposed to Proposition 34, the Nov. 6 ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Death Row inmates would have their sentences reduced to life but would lose access to state-funded lawyers for habeas corpus, except for those who have already filed their claims. The proposition would eliminate for many Death Row inmates after the first round of appeals.
The seeming paradox reflects the tangled legal procedures surrounding capital punishment and the state’s efforts to guard against wrongful convictions and executions by providing additional rights to the condemned. Habeas corpus allows inmates to challenge their convictions or sentence for reasons outside the trial record–typically, incompetent legal representation, misconduct by a judge or juror, or newly discovered evidence. For condemned prisoners, it often represents their best chance to stave off execution by presenting their claims to federal judges, who are appointed for life, rather than elected state judges. A ruling that leads to their acquittal, or even a finding of innocence, is also more likely in habeas corpus than in the earlier direct appeal.