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Ballot Measure Pushed To Abolish Death Penalty In Calif.

The gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
The gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
Group Moves To Abolish The Death Penalty In California
Natasha Minsker Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act (SAFE) Campaign Manager Paul Pfingst served as San Diego County District Attorney for eight years. He is a partner in the law firm of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on KPBS midday edition, organizers of the SAFE California Campaign say they believe voters are ready to abolish the death peptide, and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The campaign to collect signatures to place an anti-death penalty initiative on the 2012 ballot was launched across the state, including here in San Diego today. The initiative is aimed not so much toward saving lives as redirecting millions spent on death penalty cases into solving more crimes. My guests, Natasha Minsker is the safe campaign manager. Welcome. MINSKER: Thank you so much for having me. CAVANAUGH: Paul Pfingst, served as San Diego county district attorney for eight years, he is now a partner in the law firm of Higgs, Fletcher, and Mack. Welcome back to the show. FLORES: It's good to be here. CAVANAUGH: Natally, why do you think Californians might be ready to get ready of the death penalty now? MINSKER: Attitudes in California have changed. When given the choice between the death penalty, and life without possibility of parole, voters choose life without the possibility of parole. And the reason for that is Californians have learned, more and more Californians know that the death penalty puts innocent lives at rick. Here in California, hundreds of innocent people have been wrongfully convicted, and innocent people have been executed in recent years, people like Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of texas years ago, and experts now agree he was actually innocent at the time. CAVANAUGH: One of the polls you sight talks about an 7% difference in the way more people in California support life without the possibility of parole than the death penalty which is a big change. But if they're not given that choice, a full 68% of Californians say they support the death penalty. So where do you go with that? MINSKER: This initiative will be the very first time the California voters are given the choice. The voters of California have been given the option to vote on initiatives to reinstate the death penalty, or to expand the death penalty. But they've never been given this choice. Which do they prefer? The death penalty or life without possibility of parole? That's the choice that really matters. And California voters are realizing that by replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, we will save literally billions of dollars that can go to other safety needs. CAVANAUGH: The name of the bill, the savings, ability and full enforce. For California act. That's the name of the proposed initiative. There's no mention of the death penalty in that name. Is it mislead something. MINSKER: Not at all. This act is about savings, it is about accountability, and it's about full enforcement for California. By replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, will save the state of California $1 billion or the course of five years. It holds offender it is accountability by making everyone who is convicted work in prison. And the money they earn, some of it will go to the victims' compensation fund. It provides for real accountability, and takes some of the money that we're going to save boo replacing the death penalty and directs that to local enforcement for the purpose of solving unsolved murders and rapes here in California. And that's critical for people to understand. It's shocking, but true, that 46% of murders in California are not solved every year. And 56% of reported rapes are not solved every year. We need full enforcement of the law. We need everyone who commits murder or rape to be caught, brought to justice, and put behind bars. CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you more about that, but i want to get Paul Pfingst in the conversation. When you were San Diego district attorney, you saw the death penalty in about 22 cases, most notably the David wester field murder case. Do you think Californians might be ready to replace the death penalty? FLORES: No, i don't think so. We've been down this path a number of times before. And i appreciate the energy and the optimism to present this to the voters yet again. But the death penalty was actually abolished in California some years ago by the U.S. supreme court then reinstated by voter initiative. I think we live in an age, i think, now of public intolerance for certain thing, for example, i think -- I'm not advocating it one way or another, but I'm sighing what kills this is people's fear of terrorism. Some terrorist comes in and blows up a building. If Osama bin Laden had come back to the united states for trial, i think the public would want to have the opportunity to execute that person. I'm not sure the polls really focus in on the precise issue that will turn the election. Most people can conceive of somebody who they feel should be executed. Not everybody. And they would agree. But some people they would say deserve execution. So i -- I'm a little suspicious of a polling that data. I'm concerned about the initiative at this point i think the dollar amounts depending upon how you count them, i understand everybody counts it for advocacy purposes and everything else am I've been involved in it in an intensive way, in the money part of this, and I've done a lot of study in this, and the dollar amounts i think are inflated. There would be some savings, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the defense bar in the courts have been able to slow down the process of the death penalty in order to make it expensive. So i think a lot of voter it is would say, why don't we change the process rather than abolish the penalty? If the objection is on the bases of philosophical grounds say willing the penalty is inhumane, that's a principle argument that should be voted out and let the voters decide. If the argument is based on a thought process, the voters will say change the process. If the courts and the defense attempts slow this down, make it so they can't slow it down for 10 or 15 years. CAVANAUGH: Right. The money that you are saying that we're going to be saving with this initiative, is there any way of knowing that that will actually be redirected to solving all these unsolved murders and unsolved rapes? MINSKER: It's very easy to say let's just fix the system. But the reality is people have tried to fix the system for 30 years, and they have failed. We have passed legislation, we have passed initiatives, created state-wide agencies all with the intention of making the process move more quickly and cost less money, and the process takes even longer than it has ever before, and it's costing even more money than it ever has before. In fact, the California senate created a commission to answer this question: Can we, quote, fix the death penalty, and make the process work better? And the commission came out with a series of recommendations, and they said if you want to protect the innocent people from execution but also make the system more initiate and move more quickly, the answer is, you actually have to spend even more money than you're spending now. They said $95 million a year more than what we're spending right now. If you want more lawyers to handle more cases and more judges to hear more cases, all of that costs money. And everyone knows money we do not have right now in California. FLORES: There's some basic fundamental problem here. The murder rate in the state of California has declined by over 60% in the past 14 or 15 years. What we see is is that there are many, many fewer homicide cases. So when someone says we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars more, i have a challenge with that. I saw when i was doing this, and again I'm not supporting or opposing this initiative. I'm just saying when i take a look at the numbers here, i don't find the numbers to be trustworthy at this point. I think they require examination. And when the California senate puts together a commission on the death penalty, i know ahead of time how it's going to turn out. That doesn't provide a lot of guidance for me. What we find out here is that there is a problem with an extended appellate process. The prosecution of death penalty cases in the courtroom is not that bad. It's not that expensive. There's a longer voir dire to get the juries, but on the whole, it's more expensive, but it's only the added expenses because now issues have to be resolved. But the issue has to do with the appellate process, and the repeated appeals, and other jurisdictions, and the death penalty is exercised with a much shorter time, with much less expense. So they're able to do it in other places, we in California have historically been the slowest, having the most appeals of any jurisdiction in the country. MINSKER: I have to disagree with paul on this. In the most aren't study that has been regarded on the most official study on this was by federal judge Arthur Alarcon. He and a lawyer professor did a comprehensive analysis of the cost of the death penalty. And they found that California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. And this is a republican, former prosecutor, pro death penalty judge who was finding these numbers. And these are the figures that we're citing. And it's not just the appellate process. That is expensive. But the trials themselves are much more expensive. CAVANAUGH: Natasha, i understand that the thrust of this initiative, this signature gathering petition is to present the death penalty as sort of getting rid of it as sort of a cost savings for Californians and also to help solve all these unsolved crimes. But I'm wondering, when people see the efforts of the innocence project, and DNA testing exonerate condemn would prisoners, we've seen that over years now, don't you think that too might have an impact in perhaps under mining the support that people have for the death penalty? The idea that maybe we could get it wrong? MINSKER: That's absolutely why we can't just speedup the process and gut all of the appeals. And that's what more and more people are understanding. When you don't review these cases carefully, then you execute innocent people. And when paul talks about other states that do it more quickly, other state like texas, that's where they execute innocent people like Cameron Todd Willingham because they don't take the time to review the cases, and to avoid that risk. Executing an innocent person but also save the state money, we can replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. And it's also important to address this question of public safety. As paul said, the murder rate has declined business. At the same time, the number of unsolved murders in California has been up. And each one of those is a family of victims who are waiting for justice. And in each one of those case, a killer walks free on our streets. And the majority of the cases is more likely that a murder case will go unsolved if the victim is African American or Latino. There really is a public safety gap in this country. And we need to address that. The safe California act directs the money to local law enforcement by setting aside a special fund for three years, that the attorney eligible can only used for local law enforcement specifically for solving unsolved rape and murders. CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, paul, what do you think, if anything that law enforcement or even we as a society would lose if we eliminated the death penalty? FLORES: Nothing. I mean, ultimately, if the voters decide they don't want the death penalty, i respect that point of view, and i respect the principle point of view that it could be administered to someone who is not guilty. I respect that in principle. I think that's fine, and i think putting it before the voters is fine. The savings to save law enforcement, that's a bait and switch. It's just gamesmanship in the initiative process to make it seem more palatable to people. The money is not going to get to law enforcement, it's not going to solve more murders and rapes. That's not going to happen. Of the legislature will gobble it up and spend it on anything but. The local law enforcement will not benefit to the point to say, we're going to solve murders. I don't buy that one bit, and I've been in the criminal justice system for a very long time. However, i do buy the fact that very serious, sober, committed people believe it's a wrong thing to do. And to put that before the voters, to say do we want to engage in this process, is a great argument to have. Will it save money? Of course. There's lots of ways to save money. But i would say if someone comes in and commits a horrific crime, public safety, if we're going to spend money on public safety, it should be for the people, we should spend that money on the people who do the worst crimes. And the ones who commit the worst crimes are the ones with the death penalty. If you're going to save money, save it on people who do less worse crimes. Amend the three strikes law, and doing things like that. But why would you look to save money on the people who have done the most horrendous acts rather than people who have done lesser acts? CAVANAUGH: I understand your point. And Natasha, isn't it interesting that what we're talking about here, the so called practical aspect of this petition gathering initiative, you know, saving money to keep California safe, this is what we're debating. If instead the main thrust of this was altruistic in saying California can't risk the possibility of putting an innocent person to death, then we would perhaps all be in agreement. MINSKER: All of these things are true. California cannot risk putting an innocent person to death, and California cannot waste anymore money on the death penalty. The difference here is that we actually have an alternate that works. By simply replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, we really are achieving the exact same thing. In California, people on death row stay there for 25 or 30-year, and most of them die of natural causes, just like the people sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Of the people have actually been sentenced to death, only 1% have been executed. So why keep lying to victims telling them we're going to do something we're not going to do? Why keep wasting money on the death penalty when we have an alternate that works? We have life without the possibility of parole. We will keep people in prison until they die, behind bars where they'll be forced to work and pay restitution to the victims. Given that we have this cheer choice, and that the effect on public safety is actually freeing up money that can go into local law enforcement, that just seems like the right thick to do for our families. FLORES: The danger of this, though, if we start doing pragmatism, taking money, somebody could equally come back and say why don't we shorten the process, make it quicker, execute them right away, and save all that money we've been spending on incarceration for the lest rest of their life? I don't think the money issue on life and death is where the argument should be. Then we say let's kill more people and save money that way. And i don't think that's a legitimate argument. I do accept the fact that the system is flawed. God know it is i was in it long enough at enough levels to say it is very frustrating to victims' families, it's frustrating to everybody. It's seriously flawed. Nobody gets executed. In fact, it's possible because nobody gets executed jurors are more likely to vote for death because they have been told no 1's going to get executed anyhow. So that's a false bill of goods. But we come back to the principle. The principle is almost everybody can or a lot of people believe, if someone commits horrific act, starts shooting kids in a school and kills hundreds of people, should that person be subject possibly to death? A terrorist attack, should someone who commits an act of terrorism, should someone like that know they'll run the risk. Death? I think a lot of people in California will say yes. And if the public says no, that's great. But i think that's where the fight is. And that's why i think the polling issues don't get to that. Very initiative process is swayed by how much money is in it. So we'll see who plays out as who gets the worst ad, who pulls at the heart strings rather than the logic of the most people. CAVANAUGH: The last word. MINSKER: For Californians who are suffering every day because of budget cut, who are seeing their kids in overcrowded classrooms, for rape victims who know that the rape kit in their case sits on a shelf untested because we lack resources, it is about money. It's about resources. And to say that it's not is disingenuous to the people suffering here in California. We need to take our limited law enforcement dollars, and use them wisely. And that's what the safe California act does. CAVANAUGH: I want to thank my guest, Natasha Minsker with the safe campaign, and Paul Pfingst, former San Diego District Attorney. Thank you both. FLORES: You're welcome. MINSKER: Thank you.

Organizers of the SAFE California campaign say they believe voters are ready to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Campaign to collect signatures to place an anti-death penalty initiative on the 2012 ballot was launched across the state, including here in San Diego, today. The initiative is aimed not so much toward saving lives, as redirecting millions spent on death penalty cases to solving more crimes.

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