Solana Beach woman works to abolish California death penalty

Kyle Wesendorf took a slightly unusual path to her current career as a vegetarian personal chef – before deciding to attend culinary school and take up cooking for a living, she worked in the legal field, specifically as an attorney handling the appeals of death row inmates.

“It’s a weird resume,” said Wesendorf, who runs her own business, a personal chef service called Brio.

Even though the 63-year-old Solana Beach resident no longer practices law, she hasn’t left her passionate opposition to the death penalty behind – earlier this year, she joined a cause near to her heart by enlisting as a volunteer for Prop. 62, a measure on California’s November ballot that will, if approved, abolish the death penalty in this state.

“I’ve always been against the death penalty,” said Wesendorf, who retired from her legal career in 2003 after practicing in Illinois and California. “It’s my abiding passion. I feel very strongly it’s wrong. A great country like ours should not be killing people.”

Wesendorf is a member of the board of directors of the Yes on 62 committee. In that capacity, she has helped organize the campaign, from raising funds and gathering signatures, to getting the word out about the ballot measure.

California voters last considered the death penalty question in 2012, when, by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, they rejected an initiative that would have replaced the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without possibility of parole.

This time around, Wesendorf is optimistic that the outcome will be different, and that voters will abolish the death penalty in California. Prop. 62 also calls for the imposition of life without parole instead of capital punishment.

Complicating things is a competing ballot measure, Prop. 66, which seeks to fix a broken death penalty system and speed up the process, streamlining appeals procedures and setting a five-year time limit for the completion of death penalty appeals.

The last execution carried out in California was in 2006, due to legal issues surrounding the state’s lethal injection procedures. More than 700 inmates currently remain on death row in California.

Among the reasons for abolishing the death penalty in California, said Wesendorf, are that it does not work as a deterrent, it is expensive (the state’s legislative analyst estimated that elimination of the death penalty will save $150 million per year in legal and prison costs), and that its application is racially biased.

Many nations around the world have abolished capital punishment, and in the U.S., 24 states have either abolished the death penalty or put it on hold, according to the Death Penalty Information Center web site.

“When you look around the world at countries which continue to execute people... we’re in very bad company,” with such nations as Iran, China and North Korea, said Wesendorf.

But proponents of Prop. 66, which promises to streamline and maintain California’s death penalty, said the goal should be to “mend, not end” the law.

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a Prop. 66 supporter, said she believes Californians want to keep the death penalty on the books in a way that protects the legal rights of defendants while speeding up the process.

“It’s not working because those who don’t want the death penalty have been part of the cause for how much it costs and how long it takes,” she said.

Currently, she said, it takes more than two decades for a death penalty case to work its way through the appeals process. “We want to fix that.”

The death penalty, said Dumanis, is reserved for “the worst of the worst,” for such crimes as killing a police officer, or in the case of murder with aggravating factors such as lying in wait, torture, kidnapping or sexual assault.

She said race doesn’t enter into the decision of whether to seek the death penalty; instead, she said, prosecutors consider the circumstances of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history and other factors.

The legislative analyst’s office concluded that Prop. 66 could save money by reducing the number of death row inmates in California and distributing those inmates to other prisons instead of housing them all in single cells at San Quentin Prison. But due to other changes in the appeals process, the total fiscal impact is “unknown and cannot be estimated.”

The vote likely won’t hinge on dollars and cents, according to Dumanis. “The bottom line is it’s probably a moral decision. Either you believe in the death penalty or you don’t believe in the death penalty. Californians have said for some crimes we believe in the death penalty.”

If both measures receive majority approval on Nov. 8, the one with the most votes will win. A September poll by the Field Poll and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that 48 percent of voters supported Prop. 62, 37 percent opposed it, and 15 percent were undecided. The poll found that 35 percent supported Prop. 66, 23 percent opposed it, and a plurality of 42 percent was undecided.