Convicted murderer Douglas Stankewitz, who has spent more than three decades on death row, isn’t pinning his hopes of survival on a referendum next month to abolish the death penalty in California - he knows that even if voters reject the measure, he may never be executed.
“They can’t kill me because the system is messed up so bad,” Stankewitz, California’s longest-serving death row inmate, said in an interview at San Quentin State Prison. “The death penalty is a joke.”
Stankewitz, a 54-year-old who arrived on death row at age 20 for killing a woman during a drug- and alcohol-fueled carjacking, is one of 726 inmates on death row in California. The state hosts nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned prisoners but has executed none in the last six years.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006, saying a three-drug lethal injection protocol risked causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death. California revised its protocol, but executions have not resumed.
Public opinion in many states has been shifting away from the death penalty, with five states abolishing capital punishment over the past decade. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia do not allow the death penalty.
In California, proponents of repealing the death penalty are basing their campaign not so much on moral grounds, but rather on the question of cost. They say the system, with mandated appeals that can take decades, costs so much that the financially troubled state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by instead jailing the worst killers for life.
Polls show the referendum - one of 11 ballot measures facing Californians on the same day as the presidential election, November 6 - faces an uphill fight. A majority of Californians, 51 percent, oppose abolishing capital punishment, according to a September USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,504 people. Just 38 percent backed repeal, while the rest were undecided.
State offices do not track specific costs associated with prosecuting and housing death row inmates, but a number of studies have shown the burden is high. A 2011 study by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals senior judge Arthur Alarcón and Paula Mitchell, an adjunct law professor at Loyola Law School, said the death penalty has cost the state roughly $4 billion since 1978, when California voted to reinstate it following a nationwide pause.
It called California’s capital punishment system “the most expensive and least effective” in the nation. An independent budget watchdog, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, has said repealing the death penalty could initially save the state $100 million a year, later growing to $130 million a year.
“It is a failed public policy that wastes so much public money. And it is an illusion. We haven't had an execution in over six years,” Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin warden and a leading advocate of death penalty repeal, said. Death penalty costs are driven by mandated appeals and a shortage of public lawyers qualified to handle capital cases.