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Death Penalty Opponents Submit Signatures For Ballot Measure

Aired 3/1/12 on KPBS News.

There’s a good chance California voters will be asked to decide the future of the death penalty this November. A group hoping to replace execution with life in prison said it has enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

The group known as "SAFE California" said it has submitted more than 800,000 signatures to county registrars. The measure would eliminate the death penalty and change the sentences of the more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole.

"I've gone from certainty of the righteousness and the correctness of the death penalty to being absolutely convinced by empirical evidence it's time to abolish it," said Don Heller, who wrote the state's death penalty law in the late 70's.

Supporters in California said the money saved by abolishing the death penalty -- more than $180 million a year -- could be better used to investigate crimes.

Jeff Chinn is the associate director of the California Innocence Project at Cal Western School of Law, which works to reverse wrongful convictions.

“The money that can be saved from replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, that can be applied toward more effective law enforcement so we can prevent wrongful convictions, we can find evidence that proves someone has been wrongfully convicted, and find the person responsible for actually committing the crime,” Chinn said.

Michael Mitchell is a San Diego volunteer with the campaign and has experience in both corrections and law enforcement.

He said that the death penalty does not deter people from committing crimes, but maybe life is prison will.

“In the states that do not have the death penalty currently, the homicide rates have actually dropped, and so I am hoping that that will carry through to California and I see no reason why it should not—that our homicide rates would actually drop.”

Opponents of the effort said the death penalty process should be streamlined. A Field Poll late last year found that 68 percent of Californians favor the death penalty. But it also found that given the choice between death and life without parole for a murderer, 48 percent favor life in prison.

The SAFE Act is expected to be on the November 2012 ballot.

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