Editor’s Note: In June a group from the San Quentin News interviewed six inmates on San Quentin’s Condemned Row, better known as Death Row. This is the second article on the results of that interview. For the interview the condemned inmates were locked in a steel enclosure that doubles as the Death Row Catholic Chapel. Conducting the interview from the walkway outside the enclosure were newspaper staffers Michael R. Harris, JulianGlenn Padgett, Arnulfo Garcia and David Marsh, plus adviser John C. Eagan.
‘We’re No Different Than the Main Line’
One question posed: What would you like to tell the general public about being here?
Samuel L. Capers, on the Row for four years, said, “We are no different from other captives on the Main Line. Media only talks about the cases involving children and women. Not everybody falls into that category on the Row. We are human beings and not animals.”
Steven Catlin, on Death Row for 20-plus years, commented, “It is no picnic.”
Dexter Williams, who arrived there in 1996, said, “If you can get beyond the politics and the drama of the media, 80 percent of the people here aren’t who you think they are.”
Bob Williams, who arrived 14 years ago at age 20, said, “I have somehow managed to turn this place into my own personal monastery of sorts. I consider myself to have grown up here, become a man here, and truly found myself here, and I have found God in a deeply personal, mystical, and very profound way here … I have somehow managed to become a better person than I was when I got arrested at age 18.”
The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972, but reinstated it in 1976. The 1972 decision observed that death sentences were heavily weighted toward the poor and minorities.
California’s death penalty law is the result of Proposition 7, passed in 1978, making it the most comprehensive in the nation.
OVER 45,000 HOMICIDES
Since 1979, there have been more than 45,000 California homicides, according to a report by Paul Comiskey of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
Since 1992, California executed 13 men, beginning with Robert Alton Harris. Five of those executed voluntarily gave up their appeal. Forty-three inmates on Death Row died of natural causes and 16 committed suicide.
As of August 2010 no one is scheduled for execution. Judges must schedule execution dates.
California’s death penalty process costs approximately $140 million a year for courts, lawyers and the prison system, not including costs associated with trials and federal appeals.
“The Hidden Death Tax: The Secret Costs of Seeking Execution in California” by Natasha Minsker, examined the records from the Controllers Office for compensations made by the state for 10 death penalty trials. It reported compensations ranging from $1.8 million to $8.9 million per trial, paid to counties.
Incarcerating the average prisoner costs about $50,000 annually, but it costs more than $90,000 for each Death Row prisoner, according Comiskey’s report. Some 131 people on Death Rows across the nation have been declared innocent and freed. Twelve people convicted of murder in California have been exonerated in recent years.
The notion that the death penalty is a crime deterrent has been discredited, according to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts. The courts openly acknowledge that the death penalty is racially biased.
Former California Sen. John Burton assisted in creating the California Commission of the Fair Administration of Justice in August 2004. The commission concluded that the California death penalty system is dysfunctional and that a death sentence really amounts to life in prison. Since 1977, only seven prisoners serving life without parole have left prison – only because they were judged innocent.
COSTS 10 TIMES MORE
About 87 percent of first-degree murderers are eligible for the death penalty, according to the commission’s final report.
It typically takes three to five years to bring a death penalty case to trial, costing 10 times more than an ordinary murder case. Only 20 percent of death penalty cases filed result in a judgment of death. The State Public Defenders Office reports that appellate courts overturn 72 percent of those verdicts.
The victim’s family are frequently the determining factor in whether prosecutors seek the death penalty.
Executions have been on hold in California since early 2006, when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled that the lethal injection method utilized by the prison may be cruel and unusual punishment. Although state prison officials won approval of a newly revised lethal injection procedure in early August, it brought a new lawsuit making the resumption of executions unclear.
The Field Poll has been measuring public opinion toward the death penalty for over 50 years. In each measure, there has been significantly greater support than opposition to the death penalty, although the size of the pluralities in favor has varied. In the period 1956-1971, supporters outnumbered opponents by margins ranging from 12 to 24 percentage points. Support for the death penalty expanded greatly in the late 1970s and continued throughout the decades of the 1980s and 1990s to where supporters outnumbered opponents by margins of five or six to one.
The Field Poll conducted in July found that 70 percent of California voters support the death penalty as a punishment for first-degree murder. However, if given a choice on what punishment to impose for first-degree murder, 41 percent chose the death penalty, while 42 percent chose life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The lowest percentage in favor of the death penalty was in 1957 with 49 percent in favor, 29 percent opposed and 22 percent had no opinion.
A dramatic shift in opinion began in 1960 when there was a 12 percent change from 22 percent of Californians who had no opinion. Those who had no opinion split evenly between in favor and opposed. This “taking sides” corresponds with the beginning of extreme political polarization in California regarding the death penalty.
The widest margin of disagreement in the poll was in 1985 and 1986 with only two and three percent having no opinion, respectively. During that period, 83 percent of Californians supported the death penalty while 15 and 14 percent opposed it, respectively.