By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A trio of former California governors urged voters on Tuesday to preserve the death penalty in the state by defeating a ballot initiative seeking to abolish capital punishment on cost grounds, and a recent poll showed the measure gaining support but falling short of passing.
The initiative, if passed by voters next week, would automatically commute the sentences of 725 death row inmates in California, which has nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned prisoners but has executed none in the last six years.
"Prop. 34 is a horrible injustice," said former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, referring to the ballot proposition. "Like a giant eraser, it would wipe out the death penalty convictions of 700 killers on death row."
Those convicts are responsible for killing 200 children and 43 police officers, said Davis, who was governor from 1999 to 2003 and who was joined in opposing death penalty repeal by former Republican governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.
"Don't let the bad guys on death row win," Davis said. The governors were joined at a Los Angeles hotel by relatives of murder victims, prosecutors and police officers.
California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been silent on the initiative.
The push by the former governors follows a poll of 1,504 registered voters released on Friday by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times that showed support for repeal at 42 percent, with 45 percent opposed. The poll had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.
Those numbers represented a much narrower gap than in a September survey by the same group that showed the pro-repeal side at 38 percent compared to 51 percent who wanted to keep the death penalty.
The polling boost was welcomed by the campaign to end the death penalty, even if ballot initiatives are generally seen by political observers as unlikely to succeed without crossing the crucial 50 percent threshold in polls leading up to an election.
Seventeen U.S. states and the District of Columbia do not allow the death penalty. The referendum comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and other backers of the ballot initiative are taking a new approach by emphasizing the cost of the death penalty.
Death penalty costs are driven by mandated appeals and a shortage of public lawyers qualified to handle capital cases.
An independent budget watchdog, the Legislative Analyst's Office, has said repealing the death penalty in California could initially save $100 million a year, later growing to $130 million a year.
The group behind the initiative held a news conference on Tuesday featuring relatives of victims in death row cases.
"I know how it feels like to have an innocent person you love murdered," Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed last year in a southern California shooting spree, said in a statement.
"I want no part of the execution of an innocent person. I passionately believe that if a yes on 34 vote could save even one innocent life, it would be worth it," she said.
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)