NBC Report Sparks Death Row Debates

By Charles David Henry
Journalism Guild Writer

The tiers of San Quentin’s Death Row have not been open to the public for more than five years. All of that changed in February. Alecia Reid from NBC’s San Francisco’s affiliate was one of the first reporters to recently see the current living conditions inside one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

As she prepared for this unique encounter with the men living in the original Condemned Row, Reid thought: “These inmates would be disrespectful and shout inappropriate things.” It was just the opposite.

For a condemned inmate, life on Death Row is 23 hours a day locked in a four-by-10-foot cell. Keeping their sanity is the biggest challenge, Reid said. Some of men still claim their innocence.

Charles Edward Crawford II told her, “I don’t know that there’s an amount of time that you can give a person for the crime I’m convicted of that would satisfy everyone; (it’s like) tossing people away.” Doug Clark insists he’s innocent of being the Sunset Killer.

Since 1893, 422 convicts have been executed on San Quentin’s Death Row, either by hanging, the gas chamber or lethal injection. Clarence Ray Allen was the last person executed in 10 years after spending 23 years on these tiers.

Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founding member of the Crips, was also put to death in 2005 after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected clemency for him, she reported.

In the past decade, the public support for capital punishment has dropped. The majority of inmates facing this sentence want executions abolished. “If you kill someone for a crime … that they may have committed, what makes you different from a person that’s a murderer on the street?” Charles Smith asked.

Most inmates spend an average of 15 years on Death Row.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 102 condemned men have died of natural causes. There are 746 inmates housed there today. Four men have been on Death Row for crimes committed in 1977. Today, the youngest inmate is 23. The oldest is 85-year old David Carpenter.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney struck down the death penalty in California, not because he necessarily opposed capital punishment, but rather because he found the delays so long that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his decision, the Sacramento Bee reported.

As the death penalty remains in limbo in California, signature-gatherers are circulating petitions for two November ballot initiatives, one to abolish the death penalty and one to speed up the execution process.

The abolition initiative will definitely qualify for the November election, consultant Bill Zimmerman said. Chuck Orrock, proponent for the death penalty, said, “I’m feeling confident.”

If both measures should pass, the state Constitution says the one initiative with the most votes will take precedence. According to the Bee, this legal concept has never been applied to competing death penalty measures.

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