Death Chamber

By Bob Egelko
May 19, 2016 Updated: May 19, 2016 5:38pm

Death-penalty supporters submitted signatures on a ballot measure Thursday aimed at speeding up executions in California, setting the stage for voters to decide in November whether to retain and overhaul the state’s death penalty or abolish it.

Prosecutors, law enforcement groups and victims’-rights advocates turned in 593,000 signatures for the initiative, which would attempt to fix a system plagued by delays and high costs by tightening legal deadlines and requiring more lawyers to take capital cases. Last month, opponents of the death penalty submitted 601,000 signatures for an initiative to repeal capital punishment and replace it with life in prison without parole. Each measure needs 365,880 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

A recent Field poll indicated that Californians were closely divided, with 48 percent in favor of speeding up executions and 47 percent preferring to eliminate them. If both measures win majority votes, a provision in the pro-death penalty initiative says only the one receiving more votes would become law. That has been the rule for conflicting ballot measures in the past, but a leader of the campaign to abolish the death penalty argues that a majority vote for the repeal measure would override any vote for the rival proposal.

“If we repeal the death penalty, they (supporters of the speedup measure) will be modifying procedures for a policy that no longer exists,” said Quintin Mecke, deputy campaign manager for the repeal initiative.

But an expert on election laws said he thinks the courts will uphold whichever measure passes by a higher majority.

“The usual rule is, if they’re in conflict, the one that gets more votes would be the winner,” said Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor. State courts have focused on whether two ballot measures are actually in conflict, he said, and “I don’t see how you can both speed up something and abolish it.”

Speeding up appeals

The goal of the prosecution-backed measure is to end lengthy delays in the current process, which typically requires condemned prisoners to wait 25 to 30 years before their appeals are resolved. One provision would require the state’s high court, which directly reviews all capital-case appeals, to issue decisions within five years of each death sentence.

The court currently decides 80 to 90 civil and criminal cases a year. With more than 300 death-penalty appeals now pending, and about 18 new death sentences in the state each year, the justices would have to devote themselves almost entirely to capital cases to comply with a five-year deadline, and disregard the rest of their caseload.

But a supporter of the initiative said it wouldn’t be applied that way, at least not at first.

“There’s going to be a catch-up period,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Thursday before submitting signatures for the speedup initiative at the county elections office. “The standard we’re trying to set is for the long term.”

He said the initiative, while requiring the court to decide capital cases in five years, doesn’t impose any penalties for missing the deadline. Similarly, Wagstaffe said, it would probably take some time, and additional funding from the Legislature, to train more defense lawyers to handle death penalty appeals that the initiative would require them to accept.

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