California’s Death Penalty: What Prop 34 Actually Says about First-Degree Murder

safe californiaPlease take a few moments to read the actual text of Proposition 34, which will end the death penalty in California.

The current court system operates with the following chronology.

  • Someone dies at the hand of another.  Generally called “murder.”
  • Someone is arrested on suspicion of having committed the crime of murder.
  • A trial occurs.
  • If the accused person is convicted of 2nd degree murder, the penalty is 15 years to life, unless the murder is of a peace officer or was a drive-by shooting, in which case the penalties increase to 25 or 20 years.
  • If the accused person is convicted of 1st degree murder without an additional finding of special circumstances, the penalty for murder is 25 years to life.
  • If the accused person is convicted of 1st degree murder with an additional finding of special circumstances, a new penalty trial is held to determine if the penalty should be death of life imprisonment.
  • The penalty trial is NOT an appeal.  It results in only a binary choice: life imprisonment or a death sentence.

Proposition 34 simply strips out the statutory references to a “death” option for convictions of first degree murder that carry a separate finding of special circumstances.  And, Prop 34 eliminates the binary penalty hearing that forces a choice between life imprisonment or death.

Put another way, all prisoners on “death row” in California were convicted of murder in the first degree with an additional finding of special circumstances AND a penalty trial finding that the crime merits death.  Those prisoners sentenced to death effectively were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, with the additionalprovision that they will be put to death after all their appeals have run out.  Proposition 34 deletes the “put to death” portion of the sentence.  Proposition 34 does not INCREASE any penalty.

Proposition 34 amends Penal Code 190(a) to delete the “death” option.  The Proposition does not make it easier to convict an accused person of murder in the first degree.  The Proposition does not increase the penalty for murder in the second degree.  Proposition 34 does not reduce the appeals process for a person convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances.

  • Progressives oppose murder.
  • Progressives oppose rape.
  • Progressives oppose torture.
  • Progressives oppose bombings of civilians, killings of children, killings of public safety officers, assassination of proposed trial witnesses, murder for pay and lying-in-wait retaliatory killings of government employees in revenge for slights such as not issuing development permits.

Current law requires special circumstances for life imprisonment or the death penalty to apply.  Proposition 34 changes this penalty to eliminate the option of death, but still to require a finding of special circumstances before life imprisonment can be imposed.

First degree murder will still carry EITHER a penalty of life imprisonment without possibility of parole or a sentence of 25 years to life.

Second degree murder will continue to carry a penalty of 15 years to life.

California does NOT provide a death sentence OR life imprisonment without possibility of parole for ANY second degree murder conviction.  Proposition 34 affects first degree murder convictions that also have special circumstances.

Under Prop 34, California will continue to require a finding of “special circumstances” before imposition of a life imprisonment sentence.

Is the justice system messed up?  Yes, often.  However, Proposition 34 is a straight up-or-down referendum on whether California should have the option to execute prisoners. Pass Proposition 34 and the death chamber shuts down permanently as do penalty trials in which panels of our fellow citizens vote thumbs up or thumbs down on whether the state should kill in our names.

Chris Stampolis
Member, Democratic National Committee

Posted: Thursday, 26 July 2012


  1. says

    This is such a clear and informed discussion of Proposition 34. I would supplement this with some savings to the state if the imposition is life in prison, not the death penalty: there would not be two separate trials (one on the crime, and where the prisoner is found guilty, then whether there should be the death penalty. 2 separate juries, 2 separate costs.  The California Supreme Court reviews all death penalty cases in California, only hears 20 total cases per term, so it takes years before any review is able to be held (there are some 720+ prisoners on death row. Assuming 10 death penalty cases per year, that alone would take 70 years for the current death penalty cases. Death penalty prisoners are entitled to have their entire record in their cell, for reference with their attorneys, so to protect their privacy and attorney/client privilege, death penalty prisoners are housed without others.  The cost savings are in the 100s of millions per year, as stipulated by the nonpartisan legislative analyst, to end the death penalty.  And San Quentin could then be added back into the main prison system, saving more millions.

    And of course there is the ethical question: is it the role of the justice system to end lives or to rehabilitate.

    Thanks Chris, for your comments. 

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