Few topics divide California as consistently or as evenly as the death penalty. The last time voters had their say on it, they opted by a vote of just over 51-49 percent to keep it around.
How avidly do supporters of capital punishment maintain their opinions? Two years ago, when the Proposition 34 ballot initiative aimed to dump capital punishment in California and disband the state’s only Death Row, in San Quentin Prison, its supporters raised $7.3 million while those wanting to keep the death penalty had barely $300,000. The no’s prevailed despite that huge financial disadvantage.
So Death Row persists, with 736 denizens at last count, all convicted of the most vicious crimes, some of them repeat killers. As of March 1, 233 had killed children and 42 were cop killers.
It takes so long for any of them to exhaust their appeals that the most common causes of death on Death Row are linked to old age.
“It’s just wrong for these people to live that long after they have deprived others of their lives and taken the victims away from their families,” says former Gov. Pete Wilson.
While the death penalty is opposed by groups from the California Nurses Association to the League of Women Voters and by every Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishop in the state, it is still reality, and the reasons for making its enforcement less time-consuming include everything from finances to better justice for convicts. No one is talking about a rush to the gas chamber here.
Little has ever united Wilson and his predecessor and fellow Republican George Deukmejian with Democratic ex-Gov. Gray Davis. But all support a proposed new ballot initiative to clean up the capital punishment process.
How flawed is that process? It normally takes five years before a person under sentence of death has a lawyer assigned to his (almost all are men) case. It often can take four times that long before death penalty appeals are heard by the state Supreme Court, even longer before they reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
One argument against the death penalty is that California has the nation’s highest rate of wrongful convictions, running as high as 7 percent in some categories. But that’s also an argument against the current inefficient administration of capital punishment cases. The longer the appeals process drags on, the longer a victim of a mistaken or manipulated conviction is penalized. Appointing appeals lawyers right after death sentences are dispensed likely would reduce that time.
“The 30 years it can now take for the entire process to be resolved is also far too long for the families of victims,” Davis said. “They need resolution, too.”
Phyllis Loya’s son Larry Lasater, a former Marine and a police officer in the East San Francisco Bay suburb of Pittsburg who was slain in 2005, is an example of the delayed process.
“My son’s killer was sentenced in August 2007, but didn’t get an appeals lawyer appointed until late in 2011, almost 4½ years,” the bereaved mother said. “Then the lawyer got nine extensions of the deadline for filing his opening brief over the next two years. That’s ludicrous; it’s nonsense.”
Kermit Alexander, a former UCLA football player who was a Pro Bowl defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, shares her frustration. His mother, sister and two nephews were murdered in 1984 — 30 years ago — when gang members seeking someone else mistakenly invaded their home.
“These vultures are still alive,” Alexander said. “I have not slept well since my mother was murdered.” He also wants the process speeded up.
Then there’s the issue of how to house Death Row inmates, each of whom now gets an individual cell, usually outfitted with radio and TV. Backers of the death penalty efficiency initiative, led by San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, want them housed two to a cell, a change the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst says could save $10 million yearly.
“Why should the worst criminals live more comfortably than the general prison population?” Ramos asks.
While death penalty opponents say this is all strictly about retribution and note that killing criminals cannot reverse their crimes, most Californians still want capital punishment. And if California is going to have it, what sense is there in dragging cases out decade after decade because of bureaucratic delays, thus frustrating everyone from victims’ families to the wrongly convicted?
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at [email protected]