vote_lede_template.jpgOpponents of capital punishment announced today that they have gathered nearly 800,000 signatures for a November ballot initiative that would repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life in prison without parole.

If it qualifies for the ballot, the measure would allow Californians to vote on the death penalty for the first time since they approved a 1978 initiative that reinstated and expanded capital punishment.

Former San Quentin State Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford, a supporter of the proposal, participated in a news conference outside San Francisco City Hall this morning to announce the signature-gathering total.

“California voters are ready to replace the death penalty with life in prison with no chance of parole,” Woodford said.

The proposed law is called SAFE California, an acronym for Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement.

The supporters said they are confident it will qualify for the ballot because the number of signatures collected provides an ample margin for the 504,000 valid signatures needed.

Simultaneous news conferences on the initiative were held in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego this morning.

The measure would change the death sentences of the state’s current 725 condemned inmates to life in prison without parole and eliminate capital punishment in the future.

The supporters said the measure would save $184 million per year that the state currently spends on maintaining death row and funding the inmates’ appeals, which take an average of 25 years to complete.

The initiative would allocate $100 million of that savings over a three-year period to local law enforcement agencies to investigate unsolved rapes and murders.

Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell said, “Murder victims’ families deserve better. We will now have a chance to choose effective crime prevention over a symbolic gesture.”

The $184 million figure comes from a 2011 study by federal appeals court Judge Arthur Alarcon and law professor Paula Mitchell, who said that number is the additional cost of keeping condemned inmates on death row and funding their appeals rather than placing them in prison for life without parole.

California’s death penalty was suspended in 1972 after the U.S. and California supreme courts said the punishment was not administered in a constitutional way.

Executions were reinstated in a law passed by the Legislature in 1977 and in a 1978 voter initiative led by former state Senator John Briggs, an Orange County Republican, that expanded the application of the death penalty.

Since then, California has had 13 executions between 1992 and 2006. Executions have been on hold since 2006 because of lawsuits in federal and state courts over the state’s lethal injection procedures.

The SAFE California campaign released a statement in support of the initiative by Briggs’ son, El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs.

Briggs, who spoke at the campaign’s Sacramento press conference today, said he supported the 1978 death penalty initiative, but said, “Had I known then what we do today, I would have pushed for strong life sentences without possibility of parole.”

The initiative supporters began submitting the signatures to the state’s 58 country registrars for verification and counting today.

At the end of group’s news conference at San Francisco City Hall, volunteers carried six cardboard boxes of signature petitions to the registrar’s office in the building’s basement.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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