California, Oklahoma, Nebraska will keep capital punishment

Despite a turn of public opinion against the death penalty, voters in three states voted Tuesday to keep capital punishment on the books.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
A voter casts a ballot at an early voting site in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.

Even though the death penalty, once a common practice all over the world, has become rare in recent decades as countries turn towards other methods of punishment, capital punishment still has pockets of support.

On Tuesday, majorities of voters in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and California expressed support for the death penalty. In Oklahoma, voters supported a measure to put the death penalty into their state constitution, while voters in Nebraska overturned a ruling by the state legislature last year to end capital punishment in the state. While both red states won with comfortable margins, blue California's margin of victory was slim.

California had two execution-related propositions on the ballot. One proposed replacing the practice with a life sentence without parole, and the other sped up appeals so convicted murderers would be put to death instead of dying of natural causes while awaiting rulings.

The former measure received 46.1 percent support while the latter narrowly passed, with 50.9 percent.

Proponents for both measures agreed that the current capital punishment system in California has problems. The state has issued a disproportionately high number of death sentences, making up about a quarter of the total amount of death row inmates in the United States.

Yet the state has executed only 13 inmates since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, with the most recent execution taking place in 2006. By comparison, Texas executed 13 inmates in the last year alone, according to the Washington Post.

California voters failed to repeal the death penalty in 2012, but it seemed possible that this election cycle might be the one to push the measure over the edge, as The Christian Science Monitor's Christina Beck explained Tuesday:

In some states, such as California, experts say that the public is aware that death penalty sentences have become more symbolic than anything else, with few executions actually occurring.

"The public knows these are not being carried out," said Riverside county, California, district attorney Michael Hestrin in an interview with The Washington Post. "What has happened is we’ve evolved to have a symbolic death penalty, where the jury is maybe handing down a death sentence to express their outrage at the crime, but sort of – and again, I’m speculating – but perhaps knowing that the sentence isn't going to be carried out."

For those who support the death penalty, not carrying out a death sentence means letting criminals escape justice. For critics, having the law on the books at all amounts to cruel and unusual punishment of the kind prohibited by the US Constitution, and does little to deter criminal behavior.

"Because of all the problems with the death penalty, not a single person has been executed here in the last 10 years," California death penalty opponent and former M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell told Fox 11. "Nonetheless, Californians continue to pay for it in many ways. Whether you look at the death penalty from a taxpayer, a criminal justice, or a civil rights perspective, what is clear is that it fails in every respect."

Around the world, more and more countries have halted executions and abolished capital punishment. In 2007, the United Nations approved a nonbinding moratorium against the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, more than half of all countries have made the practice illegal.

But a few countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, continue to ignore the UN moratorium.

Despite these three ballot measures, the death penalty might be on its way out in the United States. According to a September report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 49 percent of Americans support the punishment, and 42 percent oppose it. When support for the death penalty was at its highest, in the mid-1990s, 80 percent of Americans favored the punishment.

Currently, only 34 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans support the death penalty. As of 2016, 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty entirely.

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