Poll Suggests Majority of Voters Favor Commuting Death Sentences to Life Without Parole

san-quentinThe facts are staggering, as laid out in a recent brief in Yolo County’s death penalty case.  California has over 700 people on death row and yet, since the death penalty was reestablished in California in 1977, only 13 offenders have been executed.

Recently, the Marco Topete case has been delayed another four months at least, due to the illness of one of the defense attorneys and his subsequent replacement.  The typical death penalty case costs over a million to prosecute, and this one will be over three years old when it starts – if it does – in August.

Polling has consistently shown strong but qualified support in California for the death penalty.  The majority of voters seem to support it, until they are given alternatives such as life without parole, when suddenly the numbers flip.

A recent poll, however, shows something else entirely.  Conducted by David Binder Research, the poll showed found strong support for commuting all of the sentences of California’s 712 death row inmates to life in prison without parole, and requiring them to pay restitution to the victims’ families.

Of the 800 voters surveyed, 63% supported the commutations, which would save the state $1 billion over five years.

Voters from across the political spectrum favored the idea of commuting all the state’s death sentences and putting the money saved towards public education and law enforcement. Support was highest among independents (70%), followed by Democrats at 64% and Republicans at 58%.

The pollsters said in their press release, “Notably, this idea to convert all of the death row sentences to save the state a billion dollars over five years receives support from all political parties and from across all regions of the state. This idea appears to be the type of solution voters are looking for politicians to develop, but this idea in particular is one that political figures have so far overlooked.”

This follows news that Governor Jerry Brown announced that he was canceling plans to expand the death row facilities at San Quentin.  That decision will save the state $356 million.

As we reported last week, the Governor announced in a release, “At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the State of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state. California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us.”

Meanwhile, this week, San Francisco’s new District Attorney, George Gascon, who was appointed by outgoing Mayor and now Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom on January 9, to fill the vacancy left by the election of Kamala Harris to Attorney General, wrote an op-ed clarifying his position on the death penalty.

Upon appointment, he stated that he “was not categorically opposed to the death penalty and would consider it in appropriate cases.”  At the same time, he stated “I do not personally believe the death penalty is a good tool.”

Mr. Gascon, also a former chief of police, stated that, “In my three-decade career as a police officer, I have seen some pretty bad crimes, not the least of which have been heinous murders. And that experience has caused me to be hesitant to say that I would never consider the death penalty.”

He added, “The death penalty is the law of the state. Rather than refuse to enforce our laws, I believe the more appropriate approach is to accept the law and work to change it. As much as we might oppose it, the death penalty is the law in California, and every criminal case brought by a district attorney in this state is brought on behalf of the people of the State of California. I don’t believe district attorneys should be allowed to supplant the views of the state with those of their own.”

That said, he would elaborate, “Despite saying that I wouldn’t rule out the death penalty as district attorney, I want to make clear that I have serious misgivings concerning the potential for wrongful convictions and the disproportionate impact of the application of the death penalty on racial minorities.”

He added, “Moreover, victims’ families are subjected to an emotional roller coaster as they wait decades for justice and closure. I am also concerned about the increasing financial impact that death penalty prosecutions have on our already overburdened criminal justice system.”

He further added, “The criminal justice system is not perfect. Occasionally, we have seen cases of wrongful convictions caused by mistaken eyewitness identification, trial misconduct or incompetent defense counsel. Given the irreversibility of the death penalty, the possibility of a wrongful conviction can never be overstated.”

Mr. Gascon argued that California taxpayers pay a high cost to prosecute a capital case and “these funds could be used far more productively.”

As we see yet another delay in the Topete trial, several of these principles come to mind, even in a case like Topete where the crime was horrific and there is little doubt about guilt and innocence.  The DA’s office could save this county and the state millions of dollars and countless hours by simply offering life without parole.  This case would be over tomorrow under that offer.

Secondly, we have already watched the family members paraded into court like little puppets, there as props to remind the judge and eventually the jury of the human cost.  In the meantime, the DA’s office that is doing this for the sake of the victim’s family, is prolonging the agony.  They have had to go through a three-year-long rollercoaster ride.

They could have had closure long ago.  And it is worse because there are serious questions as to whether Mr. Topete can get a fair trial in Yolo County, and frankly those questions are only increasing in light of more recent events.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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20 thoughts on “Poll Suggests Majority of Voters Favor Commuting Death Sentences to Life Without Parole”

  1. hpierce

    [quote]The DA’s office could save this county and the state millions of dollars and countless hours by simply offering life without parole. This case would be over tomorrow under that offer.[/quote]Because this was the killing of a law-enforcement officer, we cannot (probably) make this offer for a “bet”, ‘official’… I cannot imagine, at the trial level, that the defense would be any different if the DA would offer a LWOPP today to Mr Topete. Not sure what the hourly differential is between attorneys who are DP qualified, vs. those who are not. The hours would be the same. Why would a guilty individual take a LWOPP offer if the death penalty, in fact or by “practice” isn’t ‘on the table’? You have to only convince one juror that they have a ‘reasonable doubt’ to get off entirely… nice odds. The state pays for you rolling those dice. Perhaps at the appellate level, there could be savings if the DP was not in play. Maybe. Again, the state would be financing the gamble. I see little or no “financial” reason to eliminate the DP.
    If one wants to argue “moral” issues, I struggle more. OBL was responsible for the murders of thousands – yet probably never pulled a trigger with his victim directly in front of him, to see his humanity and to deliberately choose to take out a life to save his own freedom. By accounts, Topete did. OBL had no trial. Topete will. OBL was executed less than 10 years after his participation in his most horrific crime. Even if Topete is convicted and sentenced to death, I believe that it is more likely that he will expire of old age or prison violence than by the State.
    Rightfully, the issue of whether there is a death penalty or not, should be a ‘struggle’ for society. I only know that if there was no death penalty, if one of my children or loved ones were sexually attacked and killed, what would I have to lose (from the State – God would be another issue) by ‘taking that vermin out’?

  2. rdcanning

    The major costs of the death penalty are not necessarily the court costs, although death penalty cases are the most expensive because of the way they are conducted – which was mandated by the US Supreme Court and the state – two trials, special qualifications for jurors, etc. The main cost in California is due to the long appeals process which is required and the concomitant costs associated with long confinement. The state mandates a lengthy and expensive appeals process at public expense. There is also the extra expense of housing inmates in a high security setting for 15 or more years throughout the appeals process. (One state – Missouri – has experimented with eliminating special “death row” housing and had no big problems. Murderers are no more violent than others in prison.) Many of the 762 residents of death row are elderly (or have become so) and their medical costs are more.

    The way California does the death penalty is a waste of taxpayer money.

  3. hpierce

    rdcanning… I understand your points… are you pointing out facts only, or you advocating against the DP, or just the manner in which California puses it?

  4. rdcanning

    Facts only (except for the last line). I don’t really want to get into a debate about the issue. Seems to me that one can easily argue that the process of how we do the death penalty is expensive, cruel, and time-consuming. The merits of having a death penalty is a different argument.

  5. medwoman


    Do you think it would be fair to add, sometimes arbitrary and inconsistently applied to your list of
    expensive, cruel and time consuming ?

  6. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Conducted by David Binder Research, the poll showed found strong support for commuting all of the sentences of California’s 712 death row inmates to life in prison without parole, and requiring them to pay restitution to the victims’ families. [/quote]

    How the heck does someone with a life w/o parole sentence pay restitution to the victim’s family?

    [quote]Mr. Gascon, also a former chief of police, stated that, “In my three-decade career as a police officer, I have seen some pretty bad crimes, not the least of which have been heinous murders. And that experience has caused me to be hesitant to say that I would never consider the death penalty.”[/quote]

    Note, Mr. Gascon does not seem willing to say he is against the death penalty altogether. It sounds more like he is for keeping the death penalty, but using it sparingly. He also seems to be saying it is up to the legislators to decide whether to keep the death penalty or not – the death penalty is the current law of the land. To me, it appears he is politically standing on the fence so as not to offend either side on this issue…

  7. JustSaying

    We should keep the death penalty–just so we assure that only guilty people are executed, that all trials are completely fair, that no group (race, religion, sex, occupation, hair color, etc.) gets disparate treatment at any stage of the process), that all citizens agree on the crimes to which the penalty applied, that it serves as a deterrent and that executions are carried out within one year of sentencing.

    There might be some minimum conditions I’ve overlooked. If, for some reason, we’re unable to guarantee these reasonable requirements, let’s move the death penalty to the place in our justice system where it would act as a deterrent for ALL crime.

    All people who are convicted of any violation would be placed in jail until the end of the year, at which time our Annual Execution Lottery (AEL) would be conducted. If everyone knows that raping one’s own daughter or defrauding our financial system or stealing cheese could bring the death penalty, wouldn’t that result in fewer crimes all around?

  8. medwoman


    Brilliant. And I would like to add to your list:
    1) All defendants are assured equally competent representation
    2) No prosecutor is ever using a case to promote his career
    3) No politician is ever using the death penalty as an election gambit
    4) No juror is ever excused on the basis of reservations about the death penalty

    We could probably go on all day ….

  9. hpierce

    Hard to read between comments meant in irony or “for real”. Since none of the “alls” in JustSaying & medwoman’s comments can ever come to pass, have to assume that both staunchly oppose the death penalty in any real world application. OBL had no trial, so no “competent representation”… arguably, the ‘prosecutor/judge’ who caused the death penalty to be carried out may have had some political motivation (see also medwoman’s point 3). Probably there was no Seal who was selected for the mission, selected if they had any reservation about “the mission”. As to Just Saying’s points, most were abrogated as there was no normal trial/jury process. Further, it could be (and probably will be) argued that had OBL been European and Christian, he may not have been dealt with as he was. Not all American citizens would agree that his conspiracy/advocacy activities merited the DP. It is arguable whether the death (and manner thereof) of OBL will, in fact, be a deterrent (it may be an ‘accelerant’). IMHO, based on the comments of justsaying and medwoman, if as stated, they have to consider the death of OBL to be a cold-blooded murder of a religious & ethnic minority individual, without trial by peers, on foreign soil, by a ‘runaway’ government. Any other position would appear to be hypocritical. I am not saying their points are invalid. But no individual who opposes the death penalty ABSOLUTELY, should take any satisfaction in the death of OBL.

  10. medwoman


    Agreed, with one caveat. OBL was not in custody. I would not object to a SWAT sniper shooting a hostage taker once other means of resolving the situation such as negotiation had been exhausted and it had been determined that this was the only feasible means of saving the hostages. I think this is the more appropriate analogy since I believe that OBL had demonstrated that he was not about to surrender for trial.

    You are correct that I oppose the death penalty absolutely for those who are in custody and can be permanently rendered harmless to the society.

  11. Tecnichick

    Converting each death sentence to LWOP is saving money. If that money were then diverted towards education, that would serve society as a whole. Over time, the people who recieve education are less likely to commit crimes, thus not needing that much money to run the prisons. Right now, it is backwards. Sustaining the prisons at the expense of our childrens education will just put more kids at risk of having to lower themselves and commit crimes to survive. I would be interested in seeing some statistics on what percentage of the prisoners are lacking proper education. What percentage of prisoners are mentally ill? My guess would be that the majority of prisoner lacking education or are mentally ill or both. The recidivism rate is high too because people need to be “rehabilitated” while in there. They dont get any programming in there either. They put the people in a box with a guard at the door without trying to teach them life skills. Education = success. Its invaluable.

  12. hpierce

    medwoman… generally hostage takers are only “taken out” while hostages are present, i.e. still in real mortal danger… this does not appear to be the case with OBL… in fact, there is no evidence that he ever had any hostages. Your analogy does not seem to work. It is unclear if OBL was, effectively, “in custody”. He had nowhere to go, no means of defeating the “intruders”, and accounts indicate that there was neither phone nor internet service to the compound in order to call for outside assistance. He could have been wounded and ‘taken into custody’, but “head shots” were taken. To date there is no evidence that he was either armed or dangerous to those present. Are you saying it would have been ok to shoot Mr Topete in the head when he was contacted by the police, before he was “in custody”? That would appear to be a closer analogy. I know of cases (not recent, not in Yolo County), where a well-known drug dealer (to JrHigh kids) was confronted, ran, and was wounded. As a law enforcement agent approached him, the perp cursed the officer for brutality (shooting him the leg), and demanded an attorney. Unfortunately for him (?), the officer’s best buddy had recently been murdered by a drug gang. The perp was neither tried, convicted, nor imprisoned. He was executed on the spot. Had the perp been tried, there were enough strikes and extenuating circumstance that he could have faced the death penalty. I leave for others to judge for themselves what “the people’s” choice should be as to the imposition of the DP. As for myself, I just don’t know. I see the practical/economic and moral issues from both sides. I can see where rational, well-intentioned people can differ on this. I cannot see where anyone can say “I’m absolutely right” or “you are absolutely wrong”.

  13. medwoman

    And one other point, for the sake of consistency, I take no satisfaction in the death of OBL, or any other human being for that matter.
    I believe that there is a distinction to be made between the life of the individual and his deeds.
    I firmly believe in the need to protect society, I see no need to kill those who have been rendered harmless regardless of their deeds, and feel it costs us morally when we do so.

  14. hpierce

    medwoman, I respect your opinion, your values, and your reasons. Please endeavor to understand that others may differ on these. Again I say, this topic area is not “easy”, nor should it be.

  15. JustSaying

    [quote]“OBL had no trial….”[/quote] Sheez, hpierce, I suppose you’ve also got problems with the way we’re leading the death penalty imposition attacks on the children and grandchildren of el-Qaddafi (or whoever)? Or the execution of Saddam Hussein (after his lengthy trial) and his sons and grandson (prior to their trials, thereby avoiding the attendant costs)?

    I must point out that there’re some different rules when we’re fighting wars. Although we haven’t really been in wars for many years, we’ve just been doing what the United Nations has authorized us to do.

    We’ve been searching for “weapons of mass destruction,” enforcing “no-fly zones,” conducting “preemptive invasions” to keep bad people from doing bad things sometime down the road and torturing people with “enhanced interrogation techniques” to tell us where there’s a bomb or something.

    Again, I may have missed a few. The fact that we’ve attempted to avoid such strategies in our real wars–and have carried out trials (complete with death penalties) for the bad people who engaged in most of these acts–we’ve certainly chosen to adopt and adapt them in the “post-9/11 world.”

    But, that doesn’t mean we “take any satisfaction” in the death penalties we’ve carried out in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya and Cuba in the last 9 or 10 years. (Ignore the hootin’ and hollerin’, please. U-S-A…U-S-A…U-S-A….”)

  16. medwoman


    My own feelings on this are absolute after much soul searching, and having experienced the murder of a family member.
    And, I recognize that they are just that, “my thoughts and feelings” and that everyone has an equal right to their own, which is why my posts are so liberally and probably boringly, peppered with the statements “I think and I feel”.

    I hope that my comments have not implied that I do not respect the opinions of others. That is not my intent. And my tongue was partially in my cheek during my rejoinder to JustSaying.

  17. rdcanning

    Technichick: there are a number of websites – some partisan, some not – that document your point. Even the state’s own Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said in 2008: “The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.”

    Re. level of education of inmates I don’t know that stats are kept for California inmates but in a small study we did when I worked at the California Medical Facility the approximate educational level was 7-9 years of education. These were figures taken from Test of Adult Basic Education scores, which is the usual way CDCR measures educational attainment. The number of years of actual education (years in school) is probably higher.

  18. Casey1060

    I’m curious if the money incentives are the reason the public has swayed from their previous answer, affecting the polling and if not what? That seems like a pretty large leap.

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