Execution or life imprisonment

Nearly a quarter of all death row inmates in the U.S. are incarcerated in California. On presidential election day, state also decides whether to abolish death penalty. Criticism comes from the inmates themselves.

Death penalty under scrutiny in many US states. Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon and most recently Connecticut have abolished the death penalty. Coinciding with the presidential election on 6. Voters in California will now also decide on an end to executions in November. Against the will of many death row inmates, who are in favor of preserving the sentence.

Nearly a quarter of all death row inmates in the U.S. are incarcerated in California. More than 700 people sentenced to death sit in the notorious San Quentin prison on San Francisco Bay. Death sentences, however, have been carried out in only 13 cases since the penalty was reinstated in 1977. The background to this is the lengthy appeal process and the dispute over execution methods.

Opposition to death penalty abolition initiative is strong. With regard to the initiative, called "Proposition 34," police organizations and victims' groups, for example, argue that only the "most heinous offenders" are sentenced to death. On the other hand, however, human rights activists and even death row inmates are speaking out in favor of preserving the penalty.

Alternative life imprisonment Such as death row inmate Kevin Cooper. He criticized in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper that Proposition 34 "would replace the death penalty with "life in prison without the possibility of parole". This is basically just "another version of the death penalty," Cooper said. Convicted persons also fear that they will no longer receive competent legal counsel. That's because high-profile lawyers often don't get involved until the appeals process is underway.


Frequent visitors to San Quentin are aware that "most death row inmates oppose Proposition 34," University of California law professor Jonathan Simon explained on his blog. He can understand this attitude. Unlike normal prisoners, death row inmates are entitled to a state-funded lawyer throughout the two-stage appeal process.

All the states that have abolished the death penalty have adopted "life in prison without the possibility of parole" as an alternative, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. This is to guarantee that murderers can never kill again. Dieter argues: Life sentence is better than execution. Because with a life sentence, wrongful convictions could be corrected.

Concern over prison conditions
Even in Oregon, where the death penalty was suspended with a moratorium in 2011, people see the abandonment of executions positively. Attorney Jeffrey Ellis concedes that the "quality of legal counsel" may diminish if the death row inmate becomes a life prisoner. But abolition or moratorium is progress, he told epd. Gradually, he said, a new "death penalty culture" is emerging in the U.S. Fewer people are being executed, he said, and there are not as many death sentences.

Law professor Simon, meanwhile, expressed concern about prison conditions should the death penalty be abolished. Conditions in regular prison for long-term inmates are worse than on death row, it said. The prisons in California are heavily overcrowded. Conditions are considered so deplorable that they violate the prison's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011.

The vote to abolish the death penalty is likely to be close. The electorate is divided according to polls. Those sentenced to death are waiting. As it has for decades. One man has been in San Quentin for 34 years. Douglas Stankewitz was the first California death row inmate after the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. He allegedly kidnapped and shot a young woman. The appeal process drags on.

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