Silicon Valley steer cash to death penalty repeal bid

Alison Vekshin

Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names are pouring money into an effort to overturn California’s death penalty as support for capital punishment has declined to the lowest in decades.

Reed Hastings, the billionaire chief executive officer of Netflix Inc., donated $1 million, and Inc. CEO Marc Benioff gave $50,000 to support a measure on the November ballot that would replace death with a life sentence without parole. Seven wealthy donors from technology companies have contributed the bulk of the $4 million raised so far.

“My objection to the death penalty is not based on some abstract principle that it’s bad to kill people,” said Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s largest startup factory, who contributed $500,000. “It’s because so many of the people who get executed are actually innocent. If you look at the way some of these trials are conducted, it’s shocking.”

Technology executives increasingly are using clout and deep pockets to take socially liberal stands on issues such as gun control and same-sex marriage. They’re stepping in where efforts by Democratic lawmakers have failed, with contributions to voter initiatives and threats to withdraw business in states passing laws they find objectionable. Their involvement is a reflection of the leanings of their millennial workers and represents a shift from a corporate mindset of avoiding controversy to keep from alienating customers.

Political Energy

The U.S. is one of 25 countries, including Iraq and Pakistan, that carried out executions in 2015. Almost 3,000 Americans are on death row, with the most in California, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. The state had 747 inmates awaiting death as of July 5.

Nationwide, the number of executions has been in decline since 1999, dropping to just 28 last year. Yet ending capital punishment in California would do little to slow the rate more because the state rarely carries out the sentence; inmates have a greater chance of dying of natural causes than by lethal injection. Texas has killed 537 inmates since 1976, compared with 13 in California.

“You put your political energy where your involvement will not backfire,”said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director at the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles. “I could only imagine how the intervention of California tech leaders into Texas death-penalty politics would play. It would backfire disastrously.”

Support for the death penalty in Texas remains about 70 percent, according to a 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey. In California, support for repeal has grown in recent years, according to a January Field Poll. At the time, 47 percent favored replacing it with life without parole, compared with 40 percent in 2014.

Nationwide, approval for the death penalty has waned to 61 percent since an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994, according to an October Gallup poll.

Tried Before

The issue is up for a vote in three other states. Nebraska will consider a repeal referendum. In Michigan, voters will decide whether to allow it as punishment for the murder of police or corrections officers. Oklahoma voters will consider a proposed amendment to the state constitution to reinforce the state’s capital punishment policies.

Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, John O’Farrell, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and Ron Conway, an early investor in Twitter Inc. and Google Inc., also donated to California’s repeal measure, according to data compiled by Maplight. Each declined to comment.

This isn’t the first time the fate of capital punishment has been on the state’s ballot. In 2012, a similar initiative failed 48 percent to 52 percent, even though repeal supporters outspent opponents 18-to-1, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

“This is by no means a sure bet,”Sonenshein said. “The death penalty has strong pro and con sides, and it does not neatly break down with most centrist and liberal voters being relatively united on, say, gay marriage or the minimum wage.”

The proposal is among 17 measures on California’s November ballot, including a competing question that would expedite death-penalty appeals and require offenders to pay restitution to victims’ families. The competing measure has raised $3.6 million, including $3.3 million from supporters.

Worst Criminals

“I assume those people have never had to deal with the tragedy of having a family member murdered or having to be a member of law enforcement who have to deal with the worst of the worst criminals,” Jeff Flint, campaign manager for the competing initiative, said of the tech donors.

Most of California’s death-row inmates never see the inside of the lethal-injection room. More than 900 have received a death sentence since California voters reaffirmed the death penalty in 1978. The last execution, that of 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, happened a decade ago after he served 23 years.

More inmates — 25 — have committed suicide than have been executed and 71 died of natural causes since 1978.

The repeal would save about $150 million annually, including $50 million for the cost of appeal, according to a November report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“It’s a multi-billion dollar operation with nothing but lawyers employed on both sides," said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “There hasn’t been an execution in a decade. Good lawyers have fought the system to a draw."