Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Campus Only Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Reader 1

Professor John Pitney Jr.


Despite its reformist reputation, California is home to the largest death row in the United States and Western Hemisphere. This thesis explores the role of the state’s populist political processes in retaining and expanding the death penalty in the latter half of the 20th century. Specifically, it seeks to answer one question: were populist politics responsible for sustaining capital punishment in that period? This examination relies on analyzing crime rates, public opinion, initiative attempts and successes, the ouster of Justice Rose Bird, and the roads to death penalty abolition in other, specifically Western European, countries.

Overall, the great crime wave between the 1960s and the 1990s inspired enormous fear that motivated voters to endorse stances that revived, implemented, and maintained capital punishment. In California in particular, ballot propositions and judicial retention elections played an instrumental, if not defining, role in allowing voters to channel their anxieties into punitive legislation. While nations like the United Kingdom and France could abolish capital punishment through top-down processes that favored political elites, in California legislators not only had to respond to public pressure, but voters could easily supersede them if they felt anti-crime measures had not gone far enough.

As Californian execution remains on pause after the state’s 2019 moratorium, this thesis makes clear the implications changing public opinion may have on the punishment’s future. As long as crime rates remain low, there is a possibility that capital punishment will be abolished. However, if crime rises, public fears will likely keep capital punishment in place.

This thesis is restricted to the Claremont Colleges current faculty, students, and staff.