Calif. could end the death penalty in November

Marc Klaas
Marc Klaas
CBS News

(CBS News) California could become the fifth state to eliminate the death penalty if voters there approve one of the most closely watched measures on the November ballot. What the voters end up deciding could carry financial and emotional consequences.

Nearly two decades have passed since 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from the bedroom of her California home. Her body was found weeks later after a desperate nationwide search. When her convicted killer, Richard Allen Davis, was sentenced to death, Polly's father Marc was in the courtroom.

"'Justice at last.' That's what went through my mind. He was getting what he deserved," Marc Klaas said.

That was 16 years ago, Marc said, "back then my expectation was that he would have been executed by now."

Instead, Davis remains alive, one of more than 700 inmates on California's death row, where the condemned are more likely to die of natural causes; 57 have died naturally, but only 13 have been executed since the state's death penalty law took effect in 1978.

Former prosecutor Donald Heller wrote the law.

"This is a western state. They have kind of a western mentality of 'Give 'em a fair trial and hang 'em high!' When I wrote the law, I absolutely believed in it," Heller said.

Now he wants to repeal the law. He's backing Proposition 34, which would eliminate California's death penalty. Proponents say the issue isn't just one of morality, it's also about money. Death penalty appeals cost the state about $100 million a year.

"California's spent over $4 billion trying to enforce capital punishment. $4 billion for 13 people. It makes no sense economically, and that money can be better spent," Heller said.

Polls indicate the vote on the ballot measure will be close. Marc Klaas hopes voters defeat it.

"If Proposition 34 passes, and Richard Allen Davis is taken off death row, then he wins, and we lose. And for Polly's memory? Then I guess maybe Polly did die in vain," Marc said.

Donald Heller said he understands the Klaas family's pain.

"I feel for marc, what he's gone through personally, but life without parole doesn't mean Richard Allen Davis has won," Heller said.

In voting on the death penalty, Californians will weigh economics against emotion, as an anguished father's long wait for justice stretches on.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.