San Diego Tribune: Death penalty measure a 'huge victory' for crime victims, major backer say

by Dana Littlefield

San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos is relieved. 

After the votes were counted, the ballot measure to streamline the decades-long appellate process for death penalty cases passed by a narrow margin in Tuesday’s election.

Ramos, who helped lead the campaign for Proposition 66, said Wednesday that its approval — along with the defeat of a competing initiative aimed at repealing the death penalty — shows that most Californians believe the ultimate punishment is warranted in certain cases.

“They still believe in capital punishment for the worst of the worst,” he said. Included in that category, Ramos said, were serial killers, child murderers and those who kill police officers in the line of duty. 

“This is a huge victory for the victims,” Ramos said.

Proposition 66, which passed with 51 percent of the vote, promises to speed up the time between when a defendant is sentenced to death and when he or she is executed, which now can take 20 years or longer. It changes some procedures for legal challenges, for example by widening the pool of lawyers available to handle appeals.

Previously, it could take five to six years for an appellate lawyer to be appointed in a death penalty case, Ramos said. With more eligible attorneys, appellate lawyers could be appointed at or close to the time of sentencing.

One of the first steps now will be to find and train lawyers to take the cases, Ramos said. The timeline for hearings on administrative issues, such as ineffective assistance of counsel and improper jury selection, will be scheduled more quickly in both the state and federal courts.

But supporters of Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty, are not convinced.

“I don’t believe that the vote that happened last night truly reflects what Californians believe about the death penalty,” Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said Wednesday.

Brooks said he believes voters were confused by the competing ballot measures and that most people in the state would support getting rid of the death penalty if they knew the offenders would never be released from prison. Only 46 percent of California voters supported the repeal.

He also said the measure Ramos backed isn’t likely to speed up executions because state law can’t control what happens with the federal appeals process. 

“It was a false promise and it’s going to prove to be a false promise,” he said, adding that the changes imposed by Proposition 66 may increase the possibility of innocent people being put to death.

Ramos disagreed.

“We intentionally did not set a time limit on those who have facts or factors that prove that they are innocent,” he said.

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