REUTERS FILE PHOTO The death penalty in California would be abolished if voters approve Proposition 34 on the November ballot.
Lorrain Taylor was sitting in her home in February 2000 when she received a devastating phone call that would change her life. Her 22-year-old twin sons, Obadiah and Albade, had been shot and killed while trying to fix their car in an Oakland parking lot.
Although one suspect was briefly brought into custody, no one was ever charged with the double homicide. To this day, Taylor believes police did not conduct a thorough investigation of her sons' slayings. But while she still hopes to track down the killer and put that person behind bars, she says she wouldn't push for the death penalty.
“I've always looked at the death penalty as revenge, and I think that's a horrible example to set for children,” Taylor said. “I wouldn't feel any better knowing that the person who murdered my sons was dead.”
This November, Taylor and other like-minded Californians will have their first opportunity in more than 30 years to abolish the death penalty. Last April, Proposition 34 — also known as the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act — qualified for the November ballot. If approved by voters, the new law would convert the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For years, opponents of the death penalty have argued about its morality, drawn attention to the possibility of wrongful convictions and attacked the manner in which prisoners are executed as constituting cruel and unusual punishment. But the supporters of Prop. 34 are taking a different approach; they are focusing instead on the financial burden of the death penalty.
According to SAFE California, a coalition formed to abolish capital punishment in the state, efforts to enforce the death penalty have cost state taxpayers more than $4 billion since 1978.
The coalition argues that eliminating death row would save taxpayers more than $100 million each year. Proponents of the initiative suggest using the money spent keeping convicts on death row to fund investigations of unsolved crimes.
Taylor is an advocate for SAFE California and tells her story with the hope of persuading others to vote for Prop. 34. Taylor said she'd like to see the state use the savings to solve crimes such as the killings of her sons, and believes condemned inmates should instead work to provide restitution to the families of their victims.
Another supporter of Prop. 34 is Franky Carrillo, who was convicted of murder in 1991 and spent 20 years in prison before proving his innocence. Although Carrillo was not on death row, the chilling thought that he could have been wrongfully executed has motivated him to fight against such extreme punishments.
“The process that gets people on death row is a broken process and a waste of money,” Carrillo said. “The guy who committed the crime that I was incarcerated for is still walking free. We need to use that money to catch people like him.”
According to MapLight, an organization that examines the influence money has on politics, the Prop. 34 campaign has already raised almost $3 million while its opponents have raised less than $45,000.
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights organization, is one of the biggest opponents of the initiative and petitioned in May to remove the proposal from the November ballot.
“California has turned down these efforts before and I expect them to do it again,” said Michael Rushford, president of CJLF. “The supporters of Proposition 34 sympathize with the murderers. The victims are somewhat down on their priority scale.”
John Flinner, whose son is on death row at San Quentin State Prison for paying a man to murder his fiance, knows that his son probably won't be executed during his lifetime. But even before his son's conviction in 2003, Flinner said, he was against capital punishment.
“People tell me all the time to just forget about my son because he's dead anyway,” Flinner said. “I understand that people will sympathize with the families of the victims, but I think they forget that the criminals have families too.”
There are currently 725 inmates on death row in California. Since 1977, approximately 60 condemned inmates have died from natural causes and 13 have been executed.