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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Panel finds California death penalty flawed, urges overhaul

Capital punishment in California is too flawed to be effective and is crippled by an appeals backlog that delays punishment for crimes, a state Senate- appointed panel has concluded.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued an in-depth report on the death penalty Monday, the first official review of the practice since it was reinstated in 1978.

The state's death-penalty system must undergo a multimillion-dollar upgrade – an investment that voters must weigh in on – to lessen the nation's longest time between conviction and execution, the panel said.

"We've got to insist on these resources if we want a credible death penalty," said former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, commission chairman.

Alternatives the commission offered were to narrow the field of defendants eligible for the death penalty or to abolish it. Both measures would ignite controversy, Van de Kamp said, but would potentially save rather than cost money.

Keeping someone on death row costs $92,000 annually above the cost of a year at a maximum-security state prison, the commission found. The cost of appeals can be three times the cost of the original trial.

The need for reform is clear, commissioners said.

At least 70 percent of death-row judgments that are appealed to the state high court result in new hearings, with ineffective counsel the typical reason, said Gerald F. Uelmen, a law professor who publishes an annual survey of the state Supreme Court. [Mark Godsey]

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