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The Next Death Penalty Battleground

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Georgia's decision to go forward with the execution of Troy Davis in the face of an international outcry calling for time, clarity and justice has, once again, galvanized anti-death penalty consciousness here at home. What passes for fairness in parts of this country, and make no mistake, we're talking about "parts of this country," is the issue. 16 states in the U.S. have no death penalty, four of them having done away with it since 2007. Of the remaining 34, some use it so rarely their citizens forget it's actually on the books. A quick glance tells us the most active killing states comprise the "Old South," and a look at the racial makeup of death row today suggests to many that it is a relic of slavery. But a closer look tells us even more.

One of the reasons the death penalty was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 was the arbitrariness of its application. Two identical crimes committed in the same state often resulted in different penalties: one death, the other life. That was supposedly fixed by the Court's Gregg decision reinstating capital punishment in 1976, which ordered "safeguards" to protect against that flaw and others. However, a recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center shows that 32% of the executions in the U.S. since 1976 came from prosecutions in only 15 counties, a number amounting to less than 1% of the total number of counties in killing states. Of those 402 executions, all but 20 (10 each in Arizona and Ohio) came from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Alabama.

Clearly, one cannot rule out that racism and arbitrariness abound today. Justice Potter Stewart's determination that death sentences are "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual" is no less true today than it was when he wrote this. Beyond reasserting his innocence and offering God's blessings on the soul of the guards poised to take his life, Troy Davis said of the struggle to end this barbarism, "I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight."

We believe this fight must be won. And as the effort goes forward in courts, on the streets and in legislatures across the U.S., our sense is that the politics and culture of California make it an excellent battleground for the next death penalty fight. California has a peculiar relationship with the death penalty. On one hand, California rarely executes people -- 13 killings in 33 years, the last of which was in 2006. In that same period, three times as many death row inmates have committed suicide or died of natural causes. On the other hand, California's courts sentence people to death faster than any other state, creating the country's largest death row by far, with 715 condemned men and women. More than 20% of death row inmates in the U.S. live at San Quentin. Two years ago, Los Angeles County alone sentenced more to death than the entire state of Texas. Long seen as a "liberal" state, California's embrace of capital punishment is odd. In part, the dichotomy reflects the state's politically diverse population, which spans the ideological, ethnic, cultural, and economic spectra. With vast areas of both urban and rural populations and strong, conflicting pockets of conservative and liberal voting blocs, it is actually more a plaid than a red or blue state.

However, this very diversity is the reason California, a bellwether, can lead the way in ending state killing in the U.S. Unlike most states, California cannot end its death penalty in the legislature; it must be done at the ballot box. The voters themselves -- in all their many creeds and colors -- must make that choice. And they are ready to do so. New polls tell us that 54% of Californians prefer life without parole to death. That support is even higher among California's new majority, comprised of Latino, African American and Asian voters. Californians are becoming increasingly aware that the death penalty costs hundreds of millions of dollars more every year than life in prison without parole. And, in what is one of the most significant developments regarding this issue in decades, opposition to the death penalty is now much less a partisan issue. Today, conservatives recognize it as an inefficient government system with costs that are out of control.

Work has already begun to give California voters a chance to replace the death penalty at the polls in November 2012. The SAFE California Act will replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole, require convicted murderers to work and pay restitution to a victims' compensation fund, and direct some of the money saved to solving more rapes and murders. It will bring the sharpest decline in U.S. death sentences, the largest reduction in the national death row population, and it will make a statement by the largest number of voters that public safety will be best served by ending the death penalty.

Troy Davis wasn't the first arguably innocent person executed in the United States, and he isn't the only potentially innocent person to sit on death row. Perhaps he understood, better than anyone, that Georgia's decision to take his life could pave the way to end executions across the United States. The price paid in such cases is a steep one. It now falls on us to see this hope become reality.

To help Californians do their part, please support, volunteer, and donate to the SAFE California Campaign.