"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On death row, condemned inmates offer surprising views on effort to end death penalty in California

San Quentin State Prison's brand new death chamber
San Quentin State Prison's brand new death chamber
California voters face two capital punishment choices on the November ballot: End the death penalty or speed the way for execution.

On death row, inmates are conflicted on the prospects of one-shot appeals, mandated lawyer assignments and simplified execution rules meant to rekindle a capital punishment system that hasn’t executed anyone in a decade, or the simple alternative, throw out the death penalty in favor of life without parole.

Scott Pinholster has more reason than most to care. He's one of only a dozen inmates, out of 747 California condemned, who have exhausted their legal appeals. In his words, he is “ready to go.”

But Pinholster expressed ambivalence — about the vote and about his own fate.

It’s been 34 years since he stabbed to death two men who barged in on the robbery of a drug house. The hope he once placed on legal appeals setting him free faded decades ago. And he doubts voters who refused to end the death penalty in 2012 have changed their minds.

“If they start up executions, I'll be in line, but it doesn’t matter,” the 57-year-old said in a drawl barely audible through the glass door of a solitary confinement cell. His neck and chest are as burly as when he was first locked up, but the thick black handlebar mustache is now salt-and-pepper. His bunk, cleared of bedding to double as a desk, was stacked with ink drawings done in painstaking detail.

“After 30 years, you don’t care one way or the other,” he said.

But pre-vote opinions among the condemned are varied at San Quentin, the historic San Francisco Bay prison that by state law houses both a new, never-used execution chamber and the state’s condemned men. In interviews by phone and during two rare tours, condemned inmates embraced the repeal of the death penalty even as others favored faster appeals, despite accelerating their own march to execution. And others voiced anxiety and predictions of violence if they were cast out into the general prison population.

“They’re a minority,” said Paul Tuilaepa, pacing beneath the bright sun in a kennel-sized exercise yard. Tuilaepa, condemned because he killed a man in 1986 who knocked down his partner during a bar robbery, said he was certain most welcome an end to the threat of death, “they just don’t say it.”

If the death penalty is divisive, it is more so on death row.

“Death row is complicated,” said state prison spokeswoman Terry Thornton, who has been fielding questions since 1999 about the Western world’s largest assemblage of men sentenced to die for their crimes.

Two measures on the November ballot propose to fix what proponents contend is a broken capital punishment system. Proposition 62 would convert death sentences to life without parole. Proposition 66 would set time limits on appeals, limit challenges to execution methods and allow the state to house condemned men outside San Quentin. If both measures pass, the one with more votes would become law.

The last time California voters went to the polls on capital punishment (Proposition 34 in 2012 would also have replaced the death penalty with life without parole), death row tensions ran so high the entire population was placed on suicide watch. Thornton said 24-hour vigils are again planned during voting this November to “address the mental health needs” of the condemned.

Three-fourths of the condemned men at San Quentin live in East Block, a cavernous 1930s granite block building in which steel-fronted cells are stacked five high in two long rows. The inmates eat, sleep or otherwise occupy themselves in these single steel-front cells, allowed to leave a few times a week in small groups to exercise, or alone to shower or go to the law library.

Their days are largely undisturbed.

There are few newcomers and fewer departures. There have been only 13 executions since 1978, none since 2006.

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Source: L.A. Times, Paige St. John, September 7, 2016

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