The US Election: Quite Literally a Matter of Life or Death For Three States
11 November 2016 by Amy Burton
When millions of American citizens completed their ballot cards on Tuesday, the Presidential election was not the only matter to be dealt with on the ballot cards. In fact there were approximately 150 state-wide matters which were being put to the vote.
These matters included modern day slavery, the legalisation of marijuana, pornography, carbon tax, minimum wage and most strikingly the death penalty. However media coverage of these matters, in the UK at least, has been of the bare minimum.
Three states, California, Nebraska and Oklahoma, asked its citizens to cast their vote as to the future of the death penalty.
California is home to nearly 750 death row prisoners, which represents one quarter of the nation’s death penalty population. In California, the ballot card asked voters whether a) the appeals process (which is notoriously long) should be sped up and b) whether the death penalty should be abolished.
No executions have actually taken place in California since 2006, but the death penalty sentence is still handed down by the Courts. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, almost one quarter of those on death row commit suicide before their appeal is heard or their execution dates arrives. A large majority of the other prisoners die from illness or other causes unrelated to their impending execution.
The situation had become so dire that last year the state ran out of room to house its death row inmates and Governor Jerry Brown (Democrat) had to ask lawmakers for $3.2million to enable them to open additional cells in San Quentin, home to the state’s death row and execution chamber.
The pro-abolition campaign argued that by abolishing the death penalty, the state would be able to make savings of approximately $150million a year.
Under Proposition 66 (whether the appeals process should be sped up) the vote came in at 50.9% in favour of speeding up the process. This was not to shorten the suffering time of those held in death row, but rather to speed up the process of sending prisoners to be executed.
In respect of Proposition 62 (whether to abolish the death penalty), the votes were 46.1% in favour of abolishment.
So the death penalty in California will remain, however there is still a large school of thought which believes that the death penalty system in California is too broken to be fixed.
Seemingly going against the tide of opinion of the Western World, citizens in Nebraska were being asked to cast a vote as to whether the death penalty should be reintroduced. It had previously been repealed by state legislation in 2015.
There are 10 men on death row in the state, but whilst the death penalty had still been in force until last year, there have not been any executions since 1997 when the electric chair had been used.
Following Tuesday’s vote the state of Nebraska has now reinstated the use of the death penalty.
Question 776 was put to the voters in Oklahoma, which would empower lawmakers to approve any method of execution not prohibited by the US Constitution, specifically in relation to the death penalty.
Whilst the death penalty was already in force, the state was asking for reaffirmation of the sentence following the botched execution of Charles Warner in 2015. Mr Warner had been sentenced to execution by lethal injection, but 18 minutes after receiving the injection he was still alive and, understandably, in immense distress. His last words were to inform the officials that the needle which had been inserted felt like acid, by further exclaiming “my body is on fire”.
It is thought that he had been given an injection of a drug which was not listed in the state’s approved execution protocol.
The casting vote was in in favour of the death penalty, with 67% of voters being in support of declaring that the death penalty “shall not be deemed to be, or constitute the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment”.
Interestingly the votes cast by the citizens of California, Nebraska and Oklahoma do not attract much of a political pattern in relation to whether they voted for Trump or Clinton, as whilst Nebraska and Oklahoma are Trump territories, the Californians voted for Clinton.
Either way, California, Nebraska and Oklahoma take their place alongside the 27 other states in the US who currently actively use the death penalty sentence.