Skip to comments.CA: State's death penalty: a hollow promise?
Posted on 04/25/2010 9:25:51 AM PDT by NormsRevenge
In the three decades since the death penalty was reinstated, 86 condemned inmates have died in California.
Thirteen were executions.
Death-row prisoners are far more likely to succumb to natural causes. Thats what claimed 50 of them. Suicide is more common, too.
Theres disagreement about whether its good or bad that so few have been executed. Death-penalty advocates say its justice delayed, justice denied, especially when victims relatives die before the killers. Opponents say delays leave time for evidence to be found to exonerate the innocent.
Still, almost no one disputes the conclusion of a state commission two years ago that capital punishment in California is dysfunctional costly, inefficient, deadlocked.
A hollow promise is what San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called it when she explained why she agreed to a recent deal allowing John Albert Gardner III to plead guilty to killing North County teens Amber Dubois and Chelsea King in exchange for escaping the death penalty.
Ambers father, Moe Dubois, said the clogged execution pipeline is why hes satisfied with Gardner receiving a life sentence without parole instead of lethal injection.
We know that the death penalty in California doesnt really exist, Dubois said. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people sit there on death row in total isolation and just live quietly.
There are about 700 condemned inmates in California now, the most of any state. For the vast majority, death row has been home for more than a decade.
That includes Bernard Hamilton, first sent to San Quentin State Prison in 1981 for the decapitation murder of a 24-year-old Mesa College student. And Cleophus Prince, who arrived in 1993 after his conviction for stabbing six San Diego women to death in their homes. They are among 40 condemned inmates from San Diego County.
California added 29 people to its list last year, up from 20 added in 2008. In doing so, the state bucked a trend that saw the fewest number of death sentences handed out nationwide last year since capital punishment was reinstated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1976.
It was the seventh straight year of nationwide declines, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group critical of how capital punishment is applied. There are now about 3,200 inmates awaiting execution in the 36 states that allow it down from a high of about 3,600 people 10 years ago.
California also bucked the trend for executions nationally, which went up from 37 in 2008 to 52 last year. California had none last year and hasnt had one since 2006.
But last years nationwide increase comes amid a decade-long downward trend from a peak of 98 in 1999. Some observers cite that trend, along with the drop in new death sentences, as evidence of mounting hesitancy about capital punishment.
The Death Penalty Information Center said 11 states last year considered measures to abolish executions, including Illinois, which made worldwide headlines in 2000 when the governor put in place a moratorium that still exists. At the time, the state had cleared 13 inmates from death row since 1977 more than the 12 prisoners it had executed. New Mexico approved a ban last year, following New Jersey and New York, which did so in 2007.
One of the biggest concerns about the death penalty is its cost.
California spends an estimated $137 million per year on capital punishment, which includes trials, legal appeals and inmate housing. The death penalty adds between $500,000 and $1 million to the cost of a trial. Incarcerating a death-row inmate costs $90,000 more per year.
Some observers say its only a matter of time before the states budget crisis prompts a shift to a sentence of life without parole as the maximum punishment. The estimated annual tab for life terms: $11.5 million.
We have limited resources, and we have to use them wisely, said Natasha Minsker, death-penalty policy director for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which favors life without parole. The death penalty is just too expensive.
On April 16, Gardner pleaded guilty to killing Chelsea, a 17-year-old from Poway, and Amber, a 14-year-old from Escondido. Hes expected to be sentenced June 1 to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
He would join the growing ranks of prisoners nationwide sentenced to life without parole up from 33,633 in 2003 to 41,095 in 2008. California has about 4,000.
Theres broad consensus in California that the death penalty is broken, Minsker said. The best way to fix it is permanent imprisonment.
Kent Scheidegger disagrees. Hes the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based group that advocates swift and decisive punishment for the guilty. We shouldnt be sacrificing justice for cost issues, he said. We should be bringing down the costs so we can afford justice so we can give the worst murderers the penalty they deserve. That should be the discussion.
Scheidegger said the key is shortening the appeals process, which typically involves three separate reviews: two in the state courts and one in federal court.
The 2008 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice the group that called the states death system dysfunctional said it now takes 20 to 25 years from sentence to execution. Thats about double the national average.
Delays also harm those with legitimate grounds to challenge their convictions, the commission noted. About 100 death sentences have been overturned in California since 1978, when voters approved the current death penalty, and the inmates involved have had to wait an average of about 11 years.
The death penalty in California is a hollow promise at present, but it doesnt need to be, Scheidegger said. We need to change the way the courts do their reviews.
Minsker pointed out that capital punishment, like building projects, can be high-quality, fast or cheap but rarely all three. If its high-quality, it wont be fast or cheap, she said. If its fast and cheap, its not likely to be high-quality.
By high-quality, she means one that doesnt wind up executing an innocent person. More than 130 people, including three from California, have been released from death rows for various reasons since 1976, including 17 freed by DNA evidence that proved their innocence.
The first state-conducted execution in California was in 1893, and for the next seven decades, there was at least one a year and as many as 17. In the 32 years leading up to the state Supreme Court declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, there were 187 executions.
In the 32 years since the state reinstituted the death penalty: 13. And never more than two in any year.
The last was Clarence Ray Allen. He was convicted of ordering the murders of three people in Fresno and received his death sentence in 1982, but wasnt executed until January 2006.
On one of his last appeals, Allen, then 76, argued that his long stay on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
That wasnt a new argument. When the state Supreme Court outlawed executions in 1972, it lamented the cruel and unusual nature of forcing inmates to wait so long to be executed.
The average wait then? About eight years.
“On one of his last appeals, Allen, then 76, argued that his long stay on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
The three victims were unavailable for comment...they were too dead.
Cleophus Prince, a condemned murderer named in the posted article who has awaited execution for 17 years, stalked my niece at the apartment complex at which both were living. Apparently he spotted her at the pool from which she had just returned. He knocked at her door and didn’t respond when she asked who was there. She peeked through a window and spotted him standing next to her door. He eventually left, going on to kill 3 more women. His mother was quoted as saying: “My pie is a good boy.”