11/07/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

California Voters Decide to Keep Death Penalty That's Rarely Used

The state of California will not abolish the death penalty.

Fifty three percent voted "no" on Proposition 34, compared to 47 percent who voted in favor of the referendum, which would have gotten rid of the death penalty if approved.

The death penalty is one of the most hotly debated topics of our time, especially in California where it has cost the state an estimated $4 billion since 1978 -- and in that time only 13 convicts have been put to death. Today, 728 inmates sit on California's death row, many having been there since the 1970s.

In a 2012 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans were in favor of this ultimate punishment. This is down from a 1994 poll, which found that 80 percent of Americans were pro-death penalty. Opponents make the point that the arbitrariness of the death penalty and the potential of putting an innocent person to death are sufficient reasons for abolishment.

Proponents claim we have no proof of ever killing an innocent person while admitting that it's possible. They say the death penalty is a deterrent to murderers and other criminals considering committing a capital offense. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says, "You want a fair death penalty? You kill, you die. That's fair."

When another Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, was asked if an innocent person had ever been executed in America, he said, "I don't know, but it's certainly possible."

Other legal experts claim that receiving the death penalty or life in prison ultimately comes down to money and the defense you can afford. Rev. Jesse Jackson, an outspoken opponent, claims that people like O.J. Simpson have been set free because he had the means to hire superior counsel. In other words, capital punishment means those without capital get punished.

Money plays an additional role in that it costs up to three times as much to impose the death penalty as it does to incarcerate an inmate for life. Convicts can spend decades on death row, as we've seen in California, all the while appealing their conviction. One of the biggest questions involves the efficacy of the death penalty. In other words, does it work to deter crime? "We don't know if the death penalty deters crime at all. We think it does, but we don't know for sure", says Stephen Markman, former assistant attorney general in the Regan Administration.

Markman also refutes the idea that it's an issue of race, since blacks represent only 12 percent of the American population and 55 percent of the prison population. According to Markman, 38 percent of all murders in America are committed by whites and 47 percent are committed by blacks, yet 56 percent of those who are executed are whites and only 38 percent are blacks.

Sixteen out of one thousand whites receive the death penalty while only 12 of 1,000 blacks receive it. These statistics seem to destroy the race argument, but many people still believe blacks and poor people are most likely to die in the electric chair.

This debate will go on, but the delusional thinking in the death penalty equation is based on the logic of deterring vicious criminals from killing people. It's not. As I've stated, proponents would love to make this claim but they can't. There are simply too many variables involved to support it.

Critical thinking tells us that the extermination of a convicted murderer is about emotional and psychological revenge for the victim's family and for society as a whole. It plays to our innate human desire for fair play. Not too many people shed tears when they hear of a killer being executed. To the contrary, we feel good for the victim's family that they can now gain closure and move on with their lives. It's the same emotional thinking that drives us to cheer the homeowner who kills a burglar that threatened his family.

So why is it that we can smile at the violent death of another human being? The answer: our sense of fair play. It's pervasive across the animal kingdom, and human beings are no exception. How many of us were saddened to see Osama bin Laden get shot in the head? No one -- he was connected to the killing of 3,000 people. The death penalty appeals to our deepest emotions and works to satisfy our need to even the score and balance the scale.