Among Santa Barbara criminal defense attorneys, Bob Sanger’s about as ubiquitous as they get. Now he’s about to become even more so. Come November 8, voters statewide will confront a ballot initiative bearing the whorls and swirls of Sanger’s intellectual and ideological fingerprints.
It’s a big one. If passed, Proposition 62 would effectively abolish the death penalty in California. In its stead — by default — would be life without the possibility of parole, also known as LWOP. At a League of Women Voters forum last week, Sanger disclosed he was one of three attorneys to author Prop. 62, while minimizing his role in the same breath. “I played a very minor role, but a role nonetheless,” he said, “and a role of which I’m proud.
To courthouse watchers, Sanger’s opposition to the death penalty comes as no surprise. Indefatigable and outspoken in court, he’s been equally outspoken outside the halls of justice, working with statewide organizations like Focus on Death Penalty for nearly 23 years. Sanger was involved four years ago, when voters last decided whether to uphold the death penalty in the guise of Prop. 34. That effort, he told those attending the forum, came up just a couple of points short of victory. Part of that measure, he said, called for the abolition of the death penalty. But it did more. The money saved — roughly $150 million a year — would then be spent on more cops. “Our message was a little mixed,” he said. “We were doing too many things. And some people who opposed the death penalty didn’t want more police on the streets.”
This time, Sanger said, the measure was crafted to be as simple as possible. He and two other attorneys — Paula Mitchell and Mary Broderick — painstakingly sifted through all the California criminal codes and excised any mention of death penalty. Mitchell and Broderick, he stressed, did the heavy lifting. Prop. 62 also includes language stating that those convicted of what otherwise would be death-penalty-eligible offenses would have to work while incarcerated, and the proceeds would go to compensating victims’ families.
Sanger starts with the premise that the death penalty simply does not work in California and cannot be reformed. Of the 746 inmates on death row, 46 have not seen an attorney at all and 260 have yet to see an attorney about their habeas case, referring to the legal spadework necessary to challenge any aspect of their conviction or sentencing. The state of Illinois concluded 15 years ago that roughly 10 percent of its death-row population had been wrongfully convicted. By the same measurement, California would have nearly 75 innocent people waiting for execution.
A massive study of capital punishment in California concluded in 2011 that the death penalty was no deterrent to violent crime, with the average inmate serving 30 years or more on Death Row, and nearly four times as many inmates dying of natural causes than actual execution. That report concluded a typical execution costs taxpayers $380 million.
Death-penalty advocates have seized on the same dysfunction as Sanger, but they’ve come up with a resoundingly different solution. They’ve crafted Prop. 66, which would streamline the appeal process and vastly expand the pool of eligible defense attorneys. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, these changes could cost taxpayers “ten of millions of dollars a year” at first as the changes take place, and then save an equal amount down the road if and when the legal infrastructure is in place to handle the intensely expanded caseload.
Sanger is just as passionate in his opposition to Prop. 66 as he is in his support of Prop. 62, which he insists would accelerate the risk of the genuinely innocent being executed. Polling to date has been contradictory. A recent survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with USC indicates 51 percent of respondents oppose Prop. 62. Sanger refers instead to a recent Field Poll indicating Prop. 62 gets more than 50 percent support. But when the people are asked about Prop. 66, even more respond affirmatively.
Sanger has been trying death-penalty-eligible cases for nearly 40 years. Not one, he said, has ever been sent to death row. As November draws closer, Sanger is hoping for the best. “Given the craziness of this particular election,” he said, “anything can happen.”