On Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 9:11p.m., the Commonwealth of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway Sniper. Muhammad’s random killing of 10 people in 2002 terrified residents of the Washington, D.C. area and captivated the nation’s airways. In the span of seven years he was caught, tried, exhausted his legal options and was lawfully executted.
A glimpse at California’s death row reveals a very different death row time line.
Take the infamous California serial killer, Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker. Ramirez was caught in 1985 and sentenced to die in 1989. He murdered 13 people and has recently been implicated in additional killings. Where is he now, 20 years later? Comfortably living in San Quentin Prison with a Cadillac health plan and a long, healthy future ahead of him. His first trial took four years due to a seemingly endless series of appeals and Ramirez has yet to finish the mandatory appeals process for execution.
In the amount of time it took Virginia to exhaust all of sniper Muhammad’s options, many of California’s death row inmates will not even have been assigned an attorney to handle their appeal. California death row inmates wait an average of four to five years before even being assigned an attorney to handle their mandatory appeals. Only a very small pool of super-elite attorneys are “qualified” to represent these individuals—qualifications so stringent that not even the Supreme Court Justices or the Attorney General himself meet the criteria.
Legal executions have been the law of the land in California since the late 1800’s. Voters consistently support capitol punishment, reinstating it in 1978 after it was briefly abolished by the State Supreme Court in 1977. A recent survey conducted by a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz still puts support at 66%, down from 79% in 1989. While the study initially made headlines by highlighting the decline in support, it is hard to deny support for capitol punishment still remains remarkably high.
The poll also indicates a sharp drop in the number of people who believe in the death penalty’s ability to deter crime, from 74 percent in 1989 down to 44 percent in 2009.
Death penalty foes wrongly point to these numbers as further indication that capitol punishment is unpopular and should be abolished. What these numbers may actually reflect is the deep frustration Californians feel about the state’s inability to carry out the will of the people – versus the narrow, extreme-liberal agenda of some in our leadership.
Some 66 percent by anyone’s standard represents a hefty majority of citizens especially when one considers the results of recent statewide elections. President Barack Obama carried California by 61% and Senator Feinstein won her last election with 59.4 percent The state’s legislature and congressional delegations are also controlled by left of center lawmakers. Most pundits would agree California is a “liberal” state. Even with those factors it is clear that the 66 percent figure supporting the death penalty cuts across all demographic categories.
In states where the death penalty is carried out as intended, public approval for capitol punishment consistently hovers around 70 percent. In California, however, the average stay on death row is 25 years and growing. Only 13 executions have taken place in the last thirty-one years. Hardly the swift punishment voters envisioned.
Is California doing something wrong? Absolutely.
Delays in obtaining legal counsel, the appeals process, court ordered moratoriums and other stalling tactics are routine. These delays ultimately place more value on the life of a convicted criminal than that of the victim. This is unacceptable to the victims, their families and the voters.
The sad truth in California is that death row killers are far more likely to die of natural causes than at the hands of the state. And they know it.
In 2007 I introduced legislation to address these interminable backlogs by requiring greater efficiency and accountability to the process. My legislation would have required that counsel for all capital defendants be appointed within one year of a death sentence and that the mandatory state and federal appeals process run concurrently. As with any reasonable solution in Sacramento, both were defeated in the Senate Committee on Public Safety—once again, demonstrating that the liberal-majority in Sacramento would rather be a voice for those on death row than adhere to the will of the voters.
The death penalty is reserved for the most heinous–those who murder multiple people, who torture their victims, who kill while committing felony rape or kidnapping. In order to restore confidence in our criminal justice system, we need to restore the dread of a swift and final punishment that is befitting of the crime to which the accused has been convicted. As a civil society we should demand nothing less.