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California’s death row dilemma

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(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Of the 2,943 inmates awaiting the death penalty in the United States, California’s 743 condemned inmates are by far the most of any state. Of the 30 states that allow executions, Florida (396) and Texas (263) are the only others with more than 200 death row prisoners. The death penalty has been abolished or overturned in 20 states and is under gubernatorial bans in four others, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Last week, the Delaware Attorney General’s office announced that it will not appeal its Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month striking down its death penalty statute on the basis that the capital sentencing procedures were unconstitutional. The fate of Delaware’s 13 prisoners currently facing death sentences remains unclear.

In California, the last inmate put to death was a decade ago — Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006. Since then, the state’s death penalty procedures have been the subject on ongoing legal challenges to how the lethal drugs are administered, effectively producing a moratorium on capital punishment.

Meanwhile, nearly 750 convicted killers in California are serving time in a broken system that was never intended to provide a permanent home for them. Nevertheless, since 1978, far more have died of natural causes or by suicide than the 13 who have been killed by the state.

Critics of capital punishment pose convincing concerns over the justice system’s racial bias, conviction errors, the cost and timeline of appeals, litigation over administering lethal drugs and the constitutional, ethical and civil rights implications of state-sanctioned killing, even for the most egregious of crimes.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that death row inmates face a wait of five years just to be assigned a lawyer, and appeals can drag on for two decades. The DPIC points to a study that found Californians convicted of murdering white people were more than three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and more than four times more likely than those convicted of killing Latinos. Since 1973, the DPIC also reports, more than 150 death row inmates in the U.S. have been exonerated, including three in California.

This past week, a reporter and photographer from the San Francisco Examiner were given access to San Quentin State Prison to talk with inmates about life on death row. The reporting team roamed the cells of the East Block and was allowed to talk freely with prisoners.

Serial killer Wayne Adam Ford said he never imagined he would be stuck on death row nearly two decades later. “I was completely for the death penalty before I came in here,” Ford, now 54, told the Examiner. “[And] to tell you the truth, I would have rather been killed a long time ago rather than spend the last 18 years in solitary confinement.”

San Francisco native Joey Perez, 45, was one of the condemned men locked alone in rows of empty cages with nothing but pull-up bars inside. He was convicted of a murder in 1998.

“I’m in an 8-by-10 dog kennel,” Perez said. “I’m like a rabid beast. This is a dog kennel. This is a miserable-ass life.”

Most of the men who spoke to the Examiner reported frustration at the slow pace of appeals and what they perceive as a criminal justice system in need of reform.

“I’m going to die in prison,” Perez said. “My only fear in life is dying in prison.”

This November, California voters face the latest attempt to fix this. (The last was in 2012, when Proposition 34, which would have changed death penalty sentences to life in prison, failed 48 percent to 52 percent.) This fall, two death penalty measures — with competing aims — have qualified for the ballot.

Proposition 62 argues that the state could save some $150 million a year by repealing the death penalty while also ending the lengthy appeals process. The measure counts among its proponents Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Bar Association of San Francisco.

The best argument against the death penalty and for the passage of Prop. 62 this year is that government must function to value and preserve life whenever possible, even among those who have acted unforgivably to the contrary. Beyond arguments of cost savings and critiques of a biased justice system, a civilized society must stand against institutionalized brutality and murder.

The other measure, Proposition 66, also cites economic savings — potentially in the tens of millions annually in court costs and fewer prisoners — in reforming the appeals process to speed up executions. This would lead California on a dark and savage course.

For decades, public opinion polls have reflected a majority of Californians favor the death penalty, but the margins are shrinking. Will this be the year that tips the scale?

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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