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Californians to Decide Fate of State’s Death Row

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Stunted by federal challenges and a litany of habeas corpus petitions that have overwhelmed the courts, California's seldom-used death penalty has come to a standstill. Despite having the most inmates awaiting execution - 700 currently housed on death row - the Golden State has not executed an inmate since 2006.

With California's capital punishment on pause, proponents of two wildly diverging ballot propositions - one seeking to abolish the death penalty and the other to speed up the execution process - are asking voters to approve major reforms this November.

Sponsored by former "MASH" actor Mike Farrell, Proposition 62 would repeal California's death penalty and resentence current death row inmates to life in prison without parole. Instead of serving their time on death row, the convicted murderers would be housed with other maximum-security inmates.

Supporters of Proposition 62 argue that California's death penalty is "broken beyond repair" and that when it happens at all, capital punishment comes at tremendous taxpayer cost. The state has spent more than $5 billion to maintain death row since the death penalty was reinstated by voters in 1978, and has executed just 13 inmates - an average cost of more than $384 million per execution.

Ron Briggs helped author and pass the original ballot initiative in 1978, but now the son of former state Sen. John Briggs says he favors abolishing the death penalty.

"I led the campaign to bring the death penalty back to California in 1978," Briggs says in a campaign advertisement. "It was a costly mistake. Now I know we just hurt the victims' families we were trying to help and wasted taxpayer dollars."

Under Proposition 62, a portion of the resentenced inmates' prison wages would also be dedicated to the victims' family.

Death penalty critics also point to advancements in DNA technology and other forensic testing that has allowed dozens of murder convictions to be overturned. They say the risk of executing an innocent person is real and that in California alone, 66 people have had murder convictions overturned because of new evidence.

"I prosecuted killers using California's death penalty law, but the high costs, endless delays and total ineffectiveness in deterring crime convinced me we need to replace the death penalty system with life in prison without parole," former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp argues in the state voter guide.

Abolishing the death penalty could also save the state $150 million per year, according to the state legislative analyst.

Other notable supporters of Proposition 62 include former President Jimmy Carter, actor Danny Glover, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Yes campaign has raised nearly $6.5 million, with Netflix founder Reed Hastings donating $1 million and Stanford professor Nicholas McKeown giving $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, the proposition's opponents have raised $4.2 million, with major donations coming from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen.

While the opponents of Proposition 62 agree that the current system is broken, they blame defense lawyers for sabotaging the system and the state's flawed appeals process. Their solution: a competing measure, Proposition 66.

If passed by voters, Proposition 66 would move habeas petitions from the California Supreme Court back to the court and judge that heard the original trial. Transferring the case would speed up the review process by having judges already familiar with the case examine and hear an inmate's appeal, supporters claim.

Proposition 66 also limits state appeals of death sentences to five years and allows the state to house male inmates somewhere other than San Quentin, currently the only state prison with a death row for men.

Former National Football League defensive back Kermit Alexander is backing the measure and says victims' families are suffering because the state routinely delays execution dates. Alexander's mother, sister and two nephews were murdered during a home invasion in 1984 and the man convicted of their murders, Tiqueon Cox, is still on death row.

"As with many on death row, Tiqueon Cox is the perfect example of the need to have a death penalty," Alexander writes on the Proposition 66 campaign website. "What greater sentence could there be for a guy who walks into a grandmother's house and executes her and her family, by mistake, for a mere $3,500? His disregard for human life and values both before and during prison is justification for setting an execution date. It is sad that the victims must continue to fight for their right to see justice."

Joining Alexander in support of Proposition 66 is a host of district attorneys, former California Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

The top donors for and against Proposition 66 are identical to the competing measure, only in reverse.

In the unlikely event that the competing propositions reach the 50 percent threshold on Nov. 8, the measure with the most yes votes will prevail.

Voters in Oklahoma and Nebraska will also decide on death penalty propositions next month.

Nebraska voters will decide whether to reinstate the death penalty, just one year after lawmakers got rid of it. Meanwhile, Oklahoma voters are being asked to cement the death penalty in the state constitution in hopes of preventing courts and the Legislature from banning capital punishment.

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