These States Could Have a Huge Impact on the Death Penalty

November 2nd 2016

Some Americans are about to offer a referendum on the death penalty at the ballot box, as support for the practice continues to steadily decline nationwide. 

Declining Support for the Death PenaltyPew Research Center - pewresearch.org

Voters in three states — California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma — will cast their ballots next week and decide if they want to uphold or abolish capital punishment. The initiatives come as public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since the United States Supreme Court temporarily outlawed it in 1972, but during an election in which both major-party presidential candidates have endorsed the practice. Donald Trump advocated broadening its application for people convicted of killing police, while Hillary Clinton said she supports the practice in cases of heinous federal crimes.

trump clintonGage Skidmore/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

High costs, mismanaged executions, and the possibility of innocent people being executed have all been factors in the decline in support for capital punishment and with four ballot measures in three states, this year's election could prove to be a significant test of that sentiment. Here are the states to watch on November 8th. 

1. California

San Quentin State Prison in San Francisco, where California's Death Row Inmates are Housed. Flickr/koles - flickr.com

There are two propositions on California's ballot: Prop 62, which would abolish the death penalty in favor of life without parole and Prop 66, which would shorten the period in which death row inmates can appeal their sentences, speeding up the execution process. (Of the 930 people sentenced to death in California since 1978, 118 have died, 103 of whom were waiting to be executed).

Proponents of Prop 62, which include state Democrats and civil liberties groups, as well as prominent Democrats including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have raised more than $9 million for the measure. Supporters say that life in prison without parole is a more cost-effective solution that eliminates the possibility of executing innocent people. In a phone interview with ATTN:, Jacob Hay, a spokesperson for Yes on 62, called Prop 66 a "reckless attempt to rush justice." 

Supporters of Prop 66, including prosecutors and law enforcement groups, have rallied behind the measure's effort to reform the death penalty. "Californians, time after time, have voted to keep the death penalty," said Bill Bradley, a spokesperson for No on Prop 62 Yes on Prop 66. "We want to mend, not end the death penalty so that it works and victims' families receive justice," Bradley told ATTN:. Proponents have raised about $13 million for the effort, thus far.

2. Nebraska

Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, where Death Row inmates are heldGoogle Maps - google.com

In Nebraska, the death penalty has been on hold since last summer, when state lawmakers voted to abolish capital punishment, overriding a veto by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. But Referendum 426 — backed and financed by Gov. Ricketts and his father, Joe, founder the e-trade firm TD Ameritrade and patriarch of the family that owns Chicago Cubs  — is seeking to repeal the repeal, and reinstate capital punishment. 

Law enforcement groups and prosecutors have also voiced support for the measure, including Shawn Hebbert, a Grant County Sheriff  and president of the Nebraska Sheriff's Association, who said that reinstating the death penalty is "important because of the public safety issue."

But others, including former Sarpy County judge, Ronald Reagan, who handed down an execution as part of a three-judge panel during his career, disagree.

"As a retired district judge and a fiscal conservative, I know firsthand the death penalty is broken and beyond repair," said Reagan in a statement, calling the practice "a state-sanctioned revenge which has no deterrent effect and no place in a civilized society." 

3. Oklahoma

Oklahoma State Penitentiary Wikimedia Commons - wikimedia.org

Oklahoma has had a turbulent history with capital punishment, marked by horribly botched executions and high profile court cases questioning the constitutionality of the state's methods. Despite that reputation, State Question 776 would guarantee the state's execution powers and choice of execution method.

Proponents like State Sen. Anthony Sykes (R-Moore), who championed the initiative, argue that the state is obligated to enshrine a practice that the public supports. "Oklahomans strongly support the death penalty, and it is critical that we protect our ability to enforce it," Sykes said in April.

But as Abe Bonowitz, a spokesman for Think Twice OK, which opposes the measure, told ATTN: "The hidden agenda behind it is getting the population to put the death penalty above the law by preventing the courts from interpreting what is cruel and unusual punishment."

"This is a violation of the checks and balances of the traditional three-branch system of government, but it's framed as a question about the death penalty," said Bonowitz.