A new statewide poll released this week indicates public support for the death penalty has weakened, a potential boost to the campaign for attorney general of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a death penalty opponent.
The poll of 800 people, conducted by University of California at Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney, showed 66 percent of Californians support the death penalty, compared with 79 percent in 1989.
Harris, 44, a Democrat, promised during her campaign for district attorney of San Francisco that she would not seek the death penalty, and has held to that pledge.
“While she’s personally opposed to the death penalty, as attorney general, she’ll uphold all the laws of California,” her campaign manager Brian Brokaw said.
While county district attorneys normally prosecute death penalty cases, the state attorney general’s office is tasked with defending against appeals of death penalty convictions.
“Her position is the exact same as our current AG,” and four of the last nine California attorneys general, said Brokaw.
Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office is currently handling hundreds of death penalty appeals cases.
“He is vigorously enforcing the law,” Brown spokesman Scott Gerber said.
Haney, who is himself opposed to the death penalty, said his poll showed more people had greater concern about the chance of innocent people being executed, and fewer believed that it is an effective deterrent on crime.
The percentage of those who mistakenly believed that convicts would somehow be freed after being given the alternative sentence of life in prison without parole also dropped, from 66 percent in 1989 to 40 percent this year, Haney noted.
“I think that it’s clear that people are increasingly open to a sober and honest discussion of these issues,” Haney said.
Additionally, a statewide Field Poll, released last month, found 67 percent of respondents indicated support for the death penalty, down from 74 percent in 1975.
Haney said some misconceptions about the death penalty persist, such as the belief that the death penalty is cheaper to implement than life without parole.
A 2008 study by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that weighed trial and appeals costs, as well as the costs of death row confinement vs. standard incarceration, concluded otherwise.
Still, nearly half of respondents in the new poll believed the death penalty to be less expensive, compared with 54 percent in 1989.
Harris’ stance on the death penalty brought criticism in 2004 after she declared days after the killing of San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza by a gang member that she would not seek the death penalty in the case.
Among the vocal critics of her decision then were U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and then-police Chief Heather Fong.
Harris’ office has since changed the way it reviews potential death penalty cases, though it has still not charged any.
The office now has a four-person committee, made up of Harris’ chief assistant, the head of the criminal division, the head of the homicide unit, and the attorney prosecuting the case, that consider factors in support of and against the death penalty in each case. They then make a recommendation to Harris.
Harris has not issued a decision yet on whether they will seek the death penalty in the notorious case of Edwin Ramos, a 22-year-old alleged gang member accused in the fatal shooting of a San Francisco man, Tony Bologna, and two of his sons last year. Police have said they were likely mistaken for rival gang members after a shooting earlier the same day.
Bologna’s family has said they would like Harris to seek the death penalty.
The attorney in the case, Harry Dorfman, has said his office has sent letters to Ramos’ attorneys seeking mitigating information on behalf of their client, as part of the committee’s death penalty review process.
“The process is in motion,” Dorfman said. A decision would be made before jury selection for Ramos trial, he said.
A trial date in the Ramos case has not yet been set.
Harris announced her candidacy for attorney general last November, and her campaign has since raised $1.3 million, the most of any candidate so far in the race.
Brown has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection as attorney general, and speculation has been rampant that he may declare himself a candidate for governor of California in 2010.
San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston said the issue of the death penalty would likely not be broached during the primary election, in June 2010.
“But when you get down to the general election (in November), now you get to what traditionally are fairly deep divisions between Democratic candidates and Republican candidates most of the time,” Gerston said. “And the death penalty is one of those issues.”
Gerston noted that opposition to capital punishment has grown in recent years, not just in California but nationwide, potentially lessening the ability of Harris’ critics to target her on the issue.
“It may not have quite the impact that it would have had 20 years ago,” he said. “And her candidacy will be a test of that hypothesis.”
Brokaw said Harris’ campaign would not use “an issue that’s as serious and consequential” as the death penalty “as a political weapon” in their own campaign.
He said the campaign would focus on “key issues” such as prison reform and recidivism, and combating fraud and Internet crime.