|Phone lines in the execution chamber's control|
room at San Quentin State Prison, California
Crossing the Richmond Bridge to San Quentin State Prison, the fog-shrouded compound looks ominous. It is the biggest, most expensive death row facility in the Western Hemisphere.
As I walk the long walk from the entrance of the prison to the condemned visiting block, a sign reads, "Walk, Don't Run." I walk slowly. "Halt,", a guard yells, holding up his right hand. I stop, heart pounding. A phalanx of guards with automatic weapons walks across my path to the guard tower. I am signaled to go on. I walk past the death chamber on my way to see "J." That was over 21 years ago. J. was 27 years old, the same age as my eldest son.
After my first visit with J, I felt sick to my stomach. I ventured to a bar in the City in Little Italy, took a couple shots of Jack and felt a little better. I still get a bad a feeling when I visit death row; you don't get used to it.
On November 8, California voters will decide between 2 competing ballot measures: Proposition 62, which will end the death penalty and replace it with life without parole, or, Proposition 66, which will move to speed up the executions and shorten the appeals process for condemned inmates.
Since 1967, California sentenced over 1,000 defendants to death, spending over 4 billion taxpayer dollars to execute 13 condemned men. There are now 747 condemned inmates on death row; 352 inmates are waiting for an attorney to be appointed on their state habeas appeals, most wait an average of 12 years before habeas counsel is appointed. The number of death-sentenced inmates without habeas counsel increases annually because the appointment of qualified counsel cannot keep pace with the increasing judgments of death. California added 14 convicted men to death row in 2015, 27 % of all death sentences meted out in the country last year.
The California Supreme Court has trouble finding qualified attorneys willing to take on such appointments. There are only 332 active criminal law specialists in California. Many specialists do not have the requisite skill set and training to represent capital defendants in death penalty appeals.
Prop. 66 advocates speeding up the appeals process by relaxing the standards and qualifications of appointed counsel, requiring experienced Court of Appeal panel attorneys to accept death penalty appointments or be removed from those panels. Numerous panel attorneys have said they will resign from the appointment panel rather than be coerced into taking a death case. The defense bar lacks the manpower to deal with death cases.
The U.S. and California Constitutions require that death sentences be carefully reviewed by the courts. Our robust system of post-conviction review of death sentences is not a quick casual process, and only 3 persons have been exonerated from death row since 1981.
It takes at least 15 to 25 years for these cases to be reviewed by the California Supreme Court and the federal courts. There is now a backlog of over 150 fully briefed capital appeals and habeas petitions before the court. Death penalty appeals and habeas petitions cannot be done in 5 years as proposed by Prop. 66.
There are not enough qualified lawyers, court resources, or money to make the death system work; it cannot be done on the cheap and it is not a process that can be fast tracked.
Assuming the proponents of Prop. 66 could expedite executions at a rate of one execution a week, it would take over 14 years to kill the 747 inmates now on death row. During that same time, California will add at least another 200 condemned inmates.
Executions by lethal injections have been prohibited in California by the federal courts for the last 10 years. Any resumption of executions in California is years away, because the litigation over newly proposed protocols for the drugs that will be used and the procedures to administer the lethal injection has not made its way through the state and federal courts. The proponents of Prop. 66 want to allow the state to procure lethal drugs secretly and eliminate court oversight of the protocols in administering the lethal drugs during an execution.
Regardless of one's moral views on the death penalty, there is a consensus that California's death penalty system cannot be fixed. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has said, "The choice for voters [is] not whether you believe in [capital punishment] anymore, rather, the 'effectiveness and costs' of the system."
United States Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer, recently criticized California's costly administration of the death penalty, citing its unreliability, arbitrariness in application, and unconscionably long delays.
J's case is now on hold because the Supreme Court has not reimbursed his attorneys for work performed back in 2011. Delays in funding death penalty litigation are not unusual, as California struggles to find the necessary resources of an already stretched state budget.
Since I first met J over 21 years ago, his father, mother, brother, and sister have died. I send him birthday cards, books, magazines, and colored drawing pencils.
J will be 49 on his birthday this November. When I look at the drawings he sends me, I wonder how many more years I will be able to make the trip across the Richmond Bridge, I'll be 70 soon. I'm sick and tired of the trip.
The Justice That Works Act of 2016, Prop. 62, will end California's death penalty and replace it with Life Without the Possibility of Parole, saving the taxpayers about $150 million annually.
No capital defendant sentenced to life without the possibility of parole has ever been released from custody.
It's time to stop the bleed of billions of taxpayer dollars to pay for the dirty, grisly business of state killings. California's death penalty system is a multibillion dollar failure, broken beyond repair.
Source: Santa Barbara Independent, Op-Ed; Robert F. Landheer, November 5, 2016. Mr. Landheer is a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar and is a Criminal Law Specialist certified by the California Board of Legal Specialization, who has represented death cases in the trial courts and on appeal for over 30 years.
California to decide if their state will continue to have the death penalty
On October 25th, 1994, Dora Buenrostro almost got away with the murder of her 3 young children.
It all began in the small town of San Jacinto, in the Riverside County of California. A then 34-year-old mother of 3, Mrs Buenrostro stewed what she thought would be the perfect cover on her estranged husband.
Mrs Buenrostro ran into the police station in the early hours of Thursday morning, saying her estranged husband had appeared at her apartment and she was afraid.
15 minutes after her panicked arrival, the police found her 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in the family's apartment. Her other daughter, 4-year-old Deidra, was later found in an abandoned post office. All 3 had suffered fatal stab wounds.
The police originally took her husband in for questioning, but after producing a credible alibi - he was released. Mrs Buenrostro was arrested a few days later, and has sat on death row for the past 18 years awaiting her execution.
Sandi Dawn Nieves told police she killed her four daughters to get even with the men in her life.
In 1998, the then 34-year-old was fighting with her ex-husband to hang on to her 4 daughters in what was an ugly custody battle. Ms Nieves claimed her ex-husband's older son was a threat to her 4 daughters.
But in June of that same year, Nieves allegedly encouraged her 4 girls - aged 5, 7, 11 and 12 at the time of their death - to hold a slumber party in the kitchen of the family's Santa Clarita home.
It was there that Mrs Nieves asphyxiated them with natural gas from the oven, then allegedly used gasoline to ignite a fire that blackened the inside of the home but did little damage to its exterior, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and coroner's sources said.
The 4 girls were found tucked into sleeping bags on the floor of the kitchen, while Mrs Nieves and her other child were taken to a hospital for treatment.
As soon as she recovered, Mrs Nieves was taken to jail - where she has spent the past 16 years.
Both Buenrostro and Nieves sit alongside 747 other murderers, rapists and abusers waiting on death row in California for their name to be called.
|California's brand new execution chamber|
On election day, Californian voters will have the choice between 2 ballot decisions. Vote for Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty in the state, or Proposition 66 - which would speed up the execution of those waiting on death row.
While only 13 executions have been carried out since the penalty was reinstated in 1978, all could change for the 749 men and women currently sitting on death row if the votes swing to Prop. 62.
According to a poll conducted by Sacramento State's Institute for Social Research, there are more voters in favour of ending the death penalty across the state over the proposition to speed up executions.
But the poll also revealed that not enough voters had made up their mind that would be required for a new law to pass.
According to the Los Angeles Times, this is because a large pool of voters are confused about what each measure promises, and because people remain strongly divided on the issue of capital punishment.
"The death penalty is much more controversial, in a sense," pollster Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research said.
"People have strong religious or moral opposition on both sides of the issue. They have core values."
Further to this, the latest Pew Research survey, which was released in September, found 49 % of Americans favoured the death penalty, the lowest in more than 4 decades.
"Only about 1/2 of Americans now favour the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42 % oppose it," the paper read.
"Support has dropped 7 % points since March 2015, from 56 %.
"Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when 8-in-10 Americans favoured the death penalty and fewer than 2-in-10 were opposed.
"Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972."
But according to a poll conducted by Chicago-based organisation, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a survey to all 749 death row inmates in California revealed that they opposed the abolishment of the death penalty because "people feel that it [Prop. 62] was just a death sentence with a different name."
Lilly Hughes, director of the organisation, told Mother Jones that for a prisoner - abolishing the death penalty, and letting them live out their life in jail - would fundamentally be "another method of execution."
"You die in prison. It just takes a longer, slower time to do it."
Many prisoners also feel that abolishing the death penalty will also eliminate the state-sponsored resources guaranteed to them as they fight their convictions while facing execution - such as above average psychiatric care and support from international anti-death penalty communities.
The last time the state of California went to the polls to cast their vote on capital punishment, a widely petitioned ballot initiative to replace capital punishment with life without parole lost by a narrow margin. The whole population of prisoners waiting to be executed went on suicide watch.
State prison spokesman Terry Thornton, told the Los Angeles Times that "death row is complicated" and that 24-hour vigils were likely to be implemented again next week during the election, to "address the mental health needs" of the condemned.
How Riverside County became California's death penalty leader
10 years into a state moratorium on executions, many prosecutors have stopped seeking capital punishment altogether. Riverside, however, is condemning killers at the highest rate in the country. The county has sent 22 people to death row in the past 5 years, the same number as Los Angeles County - where more than 6 times as many murders were committed.
Whether a crime merits execution, according to both legal experts and public officials, is a matter of geography as much as anything.
"That's how it should be," Riverside County Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin said, contending that how the death penalty is used in each county should reflect the local sentiment.
There are 2 measures on the ballot Tuesday: 1 calling to repeal the death penalty and the other seeking to narrow the time frame from sentencing to execution.
Since capital punishment was put on hold a decade ago over questions surrounding lethal drug protocols, prosecutors in 33 California counties have not condemned a single person. Half a dozen counties recently have taken inmates off death row, abandoning legal appeals to keep them there.
But in Riverside, death sentences increased after the freeze.
"I know we are seen as the death penalty center," said Hestrin, a Republican. But capital cases are reserved for what he said he views as the most horrible crimes - and are essential to defining community values.
"It creates a common feeling that we seek and deliver justice. ... It expresses outrage at heinous acts."
He cited the death sentence given last year to Tyrone Harts, who shot his girlfriend and then set her on fire, leaving 4 of her children to try to douse the flames with small cups of water.
In deciding to seek capital punishment, Hestrin said, he measures "evil" - whether the killing involved "a predator, stalking, planning."
The prosecutor attributed Riverside County's meting out of the death penalty to a crime rate he said is relatively high. California Department of Justice reports, however, show Riverside ranked in the bottom fourth for violent crime in 2015.
Moreover, Hestrin said, a majority of the voters he serves supports capital punishment. In 2012, almost 2/3 of them voted against a ballot initiative to repeal death sentences.
"We are a county that wants law and order," he said. "I don't shy away from that. ... I feel we seek and deliver justice."
California's execution freeze also plays a part. Hestrin said Riverside voters would be less supportive if those death sentences were not "symbolic."
According to death row rosters across the nation, 25 people have been sentenced this year - a dramatic fall from the 49 death penalties handed down in 2015, which was a 41-year low.
At its peak in 1996, the nation condemned 315 individuals.
Death penalty opponents say the sentencing decline reflects shrinking public support for capital punishment.
"They carry those doubts with them into jury deliberation rooms," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Supporters instead see more selective prosecution, with fewer questionable outcomes.
"That is how it should be," said Kent Scheidegger, director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has gone to court to force California to resume executions.
The discretion county prosecutors have in deciding to seek a death sentence is wide, so often it depends on who is making the call.
Hestrin said there were 22 pending death penalty cases in Riverside County when he took office.
He removed 7 from the list, including a homicide that involved a love triangle, deciding execution would be an inappropriate outcome. Cases he has added for trial include a man who killed his father, uncle and a bystander after being discharged from a psychiatric facility and another accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers.
Other defendants who could face the death penalty in Riverside County if convicted include a woman accused of shooting her husband to take his money, a man charged with kidnapping and killing a teenager on her walk home from school and a gang member accused of firing into a house, killing a 6-year-old.
Four pending cases in Orange County, by contrast, involve three accused serial killers and a man charged in the mass murder of 8 people.
"These are literally the worst of the worst of the worst," said Susan Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney's office. The death penalty, she said, should be reserved for crimes in which "the only just punishment available to us in a civilized society is death."
The disparities have led some defense lawyers to argue that it is as wrong to condemn a person by geography as it would be by race.
Appellate lawyer Mike Clough - whose clients include the serial arsonist who started the Esperanza wildfire that killed 5 firefighters - said the rate at which the death penalty is handed out in Riverside does not follow crime trends, demographics or even voter leanings.
"There isn't any answer but politics," Clough said, adding that Riverside's judicial system is tilted to favor a death verdict.
3/4 of the county judges who have upheld death sentences since 2011 previously worked as prosecutors. And 7 judges presiding over trials in which 39 defendants were condemned had been death penalty prosecutors.
"It becomes a self-replicating system at that point," Clough said.
Prosecutorial discretion also has left some crime victims struggling to comprehend when the death option is taken off the table.
Sometimes, the reason is purely financial.
In an appeal that took 13 years for a hearing, the state Supreme Court in 2015 ordered a new sentencing trial for a man condemned in the torture slaying of a 20-year-old woman in Shasta County.
Her brother, Jason Sinner, said county officials told him a new sentencing trial would cost $2 million - and introduced him to the woman prosecuting child abuse cases who could use the money instead.
"My sister was just as good as anybody," Sinner said.
"All I wanted them to do is stand up a little bit and say the death penalty is messed up. Get rid of it, or embrace it and get it working."
Source: Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2016
California: Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 explained
This November, Californians face important votes on two ballot initiatives related to the death penalty: Prop 62 and Prop 66.
Prop 62 proposes to repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with imprisonment for life without possibility of parole.
Prop 66 proposes to speed up the process of adjudicating capital appeals in state court through a number of complex adjustments to the process. Both propositions would require prisoners to work in prison to pay restitution to the family members of homicide victims.
The Death Penalty Information Center is a national non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The goal of this site is to provide voters with impartial analysis concerning Props 62 and 66, to fact check both campaigns, and ensure that Californians have everything they need to make an informed choice on November 8.
Source: Death Penalty Information Center, 2016
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