Published on Thursday, June 22, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
New Poll: 73% of Californians Favor Halting Death Penalty
by Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO -- By nearly 4 to 1, Californians favor
stopping state executions to study how the death penalty is applied,
according to a Field Poll released today.
Although Californians still favor the death penalty 2 to 1, the support for a moratorium reflects a growing national worry that the legal system's ultimate penalty may be snaring the innocent along with the guilty.
``This crosses party lines, gender lines and ethnic lines,'' said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
The surprising results show that not only do 83 percent of Democrats favor a temporary ban on executions, but so do 62 percent of Republicans, usually the staunchest death penalty backers.
Of women polled, 76 percent favor the moratorium, while 71 percent of men support it.
Despite the poll results, Gov. Gray Davis will not back a moratorium, said his spokeswoman, Hilary McLean.
``A majority of Californians share the governor's view that the death penalty is appropriate in certain instances and should be the law of the land,'' McLean said.
Like GOP Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, Davis, a Democrat, has said that California's handling of death penalty cases has sufficient safeguards to ensure a convicted murderer's guilt.EMERGENCE OF THE ISSUE
Capital punishment has leaped to national prominence this year after Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a longtime death penalty supporter, halted executions in his state on January 31.
Ryan made his decision after 13 wrongfully condemned inmates in Illinois were freed over the past 13 years.
His move sparked legislative efforts in several other states for moratoriums and national publicity about death row prisoners and their cases.
After Ryan imposed the ban, a group of religious leaders, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, called on Davis to follow suit.ISSUE DOGS BUSH
The issue has also dogged Bush's presidential quest. He has presided over 134 executions in Texas since 1995 and was confronted with death penalty protesters on his campaign swing through California this week.
Bush will return today to _«ěs, ,where he must consider the scheduled execution of Gary Graham. Graham was convicted of a 1981 murder despite no physical evidence linking him to the slaying and proof that a gun in his possession was not the murder weapon.
In California, there are 560 people on death row -- the largest number in the nation.
Since Davis became governor in 1999, three people have been executed. All sought clemency, and Davis denied each request. Two of those seeking clemency did not claim to be innocent of their crimes.POLL PROCEDURE
The question asked by the Field Poll referred to the national debate on capital punishment.
``In recent months, the governor of Illinois halted all executions in his state because it was found that there were a number of cases where inmates on death row did not appear to be guilty as a result of DNA testing procedures,'' poll respondents were told.
``In California, a number of religious leaders and others have asked Gov. Davis to impose a similar moratorium. Would you favor or oppose Gov. Davis halting all executions until a study of (capital punishment's) fairness in California were carried out?''
DiCamillo said it was the first time a question about a moratorium on executions had been asked in a Field Poll, although the poll has tracked public sentiment toward the death penalty since 1956.
Support for the death penalty was at its highest in the 1980s, when the state's incidence of crime was also at its peak. Support reached a high of 83 percent in 1986.
That level fell to 63 percent in the most recent poll, with the proportion of those opposed to capital punishment more than doubling from 14 percent in 1986 to 30 percent today.QUESTIONING THE POLL
McLean, Davis' spokeswoman, questioned the phrasing of the moratorium issue.
``Look at how the question was framed,'' McLean said. ``It outlines problems found in a different state and attaches another statement about California. California is not Illinois.''
McLean said California has plenty of procedural safeguards to ensure the guilt of convicted death row inmates, including automatic appeals to the state Supreme Court and the opportunity for further appeals in federal court.
In the 10 years since 1986, when former Chief Justice Rose Bird and two of her liberal colleagues were ousted from the court by voters, the state's high court upheld 184 of 216 death sentences. From 1977 to 1986, the Bird court reversed 64 of 68 death sentences.