Death row inmate from San Francisco is an example of slow process

Convicted murderer Clifford Bolden has been on death row for 20 years — more than one-third of his life — desperately seeking life without parole. Now new state legislation might grant that wish.

Bolden, a hard-traveled male escort who made The City his home in the 1980s, brutally stabbed a man he accompanied home from a bar. Currently the only death row inmate from San Francisco, he twice appealed his 1991 conviction unsuccessfully to the state Supreme Court and is now appealing at the federal level.

In fact, the 56-year-old could easily die in prison before the state can execute him.

Such stories are the rule in California, not the exception. It costs the state $184 million a year to maintain the 714 inmates sentenced to die.

That’s according to 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcón and professor Paula Mitchell, who explored the cost and effectiveness of the death penalty in a recent law review article that has spurred state legislation seeking to let voters decide whether to ban capital punishment. If voters approved such an initiative, California’s maximum criminal sentence would become life without parole, and the sentences of all current death row inmates would be relegated to that.

According to the report, only 13 death row inmates have been executed since California voters decided to reinstate capital punishment in 1978. The state has spent $4 billion on the program, at an annual average of $139,000 per inmate.

Hans Hemann, chief of staff for legislation sponsor State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said he’s optimistic the bill will pass the Assembly — if not on moral grounds, then for fiscal reasons.

Much of the expense in Bolden’s case came from questions about whether one of the jurors — well-known drag queen and political activist Jose Sarria — knew the murder victim, 46-year-old Michael Pederson, and therefore pushed harder on other jurors to opt for the death penalty.

After Bolden’s initial 2002 appeal was rejected by the state Supreme Court, those 2005 questions about Sarria sparked another appeal, which was eventually shot down in 2009. A third appeal at the federal level has been moving through U.S. District Court since May 2009.

In a phone interview from his Palm Springs home, the 88-year-old Sarria expressed shock at the idea Bolden is legally able to appeal again.

“Think of the money they’ve spent keeping him alive,” Sarria said. “That’s not justice. The death penalty was my charge because of what was presented. There was no doubt in my mind that he committed the crime and that he should pay for it.”

As for banning the death penalty, Sarria said the system should be reformed, not dumped.

“You should have one appeal and that’s it. He has had appeal after appeal after appeal,” Sarria said. “It was a waste of my time to sit on that jury.”

Senate Bill 490 recently passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee and Hancock’s office is hoping for a floor vote in September. If the bill passes, it will likely come before voters in November 2012.


Awaiting death

A timeline of Clifford Bolden’s failed appeals since his sentence in 1991:

1986: Clifford Bolden, then 32, is arrested on suspicion of stabbing and killing 46-year-old Michael Pederson.

1991: After lengthy court proceedings, Bolden is convicted by a jury and sentenced to death.

2002: The state Supreme Court rejects Bolden’s initial appeal. 

2005: Questions arise over whether one of the 12 jurors in the original trial knew the murder victim. 

2006: A second appeal is filed in state Supreme Court over the juror questions. 

2009: The state Supreme Court again rejects an appeal by Bolden, who then begins the federal appeals process. 

2011: The case remains in federal court.

Sources: State Supreme Court, U.S. District Court documents


The death penalty in California

714 Inmates currently on death row
13 Executions since death penalty was reinstated in 1978
54 Died of natural causes
18 Committed suicide
6 Deaths reported as “other”
$184 million Annual cost to house death row inmates
$139,000 Annual cost per inmate

Source: Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review

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