By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California voters defeated a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty on cost grounds in Tuesday's general election, but they agreed to soften a "three strikes" law that gave longer sentences to habitual criminals in the most populous U.S. state.
A late tally on Wednesday showed nearly 53 percent of Californians voted to keep capital punishment versus just over 47 percent backing repeal in a state that has nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned inmates but has executed none in six years.
"While we are disappointed by this narrow loss, the conversation on the death penalty in California has changed forever," said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison who helped spearhead the repeal campaign.
"For the first time ever, millions of voters know that the death penalty is exorbitantly costly, and that it costs far more than a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole," she said in a statement.
Death penalty opponents had based their repeal campaign on the question of cost over morals. They said the system, with mandated appeals that can take decades, costs so much that the financially troubled state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by instead jailing the worst killers for life.
An independent budget watchdog, the Legislative Analyst's Office, has said repealing the death penalty could initially save the state $100 million a year, later growing to $130 million a year.
But a bipartisan trio of former California governors - Democrat Gray Davis and Republicans Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian - spoke out against the measure. They said it would be an injustice to the relatives of murder victims.
"Now that the people have re-affirmed their support for the death penalty, we are committed to coming back to the voters with a reform proposition to streamline and expedite the death penalty in California," said McGregor Scott, a former U.S. Attorney and prominent opponent of the repeal measure.
"The problems with delay and expense of California's death penalty are entirely fixable. Other states have corrected the same problems, and it is now time for California to do the same."
Public opinion in many states has been shifting away from the death penalty, with five states abolishing capital punishment in the past decade, and the Democratic governor of neighboring Oregon saying he would allow no more executions on his watch. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia do not allow the death penalty.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006, saying a three-drug lethal injection protocol risked causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death. Executions have yet to resume, with more than 700 prisoners on death row.
But even as California voters rejected death penalty repeal, they broadly approved another ballot measure that softens the state's "three strikes" law, which gave longer sentences to habitual criminals. California set a national trend on such sentencing schemes more than a decade ago.
The three strikes reform ballot measure won overwhelmingly, with support from over 68 percent of voters, and organizers declared victory.
"This historic victory overturns the long-held conventional wisdom that it's impossible to fix our most extreme and unjust crime laws - and hopefully inspires future efforts," Dan Newman, the spokesman for the Committee for Three Strikes Reform, said in an e-mailed statement.
The proposition would let some criminals who have been in jail twice avoid a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third crime if it is judged to be nonviolent and not serious.
Supporters of the measure argued that filling prisons with people who are not a threat to society is expensive and often works against restoring felons to a crime-free life.
Michael Thoeresz, a 31-year-old tennis club general manager in Los Angeles, voted for the measure, which recent polls showed had wide support.
"Morally, we cannot lock people up for nonviolent offenses for 25 years to life. It's ridiculous," he said.
Crime in California, like the rest of the nation, has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. State violent crimes are down by more than half and homicides by nearly two-thirds since 1992.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)