11:04 PM PDT on Monday, June 11, 2007
By PAIGE AUSTIN and SONJA BJELLAND
A former parolee sentenced last month for raping and murdering a pregnant Riverside mother hanged himself in his cell at San Quentin on Sunday night.
Tony Lee Reynolds, who prison officials said was found dead in his cell, is the 14th death row inmate to kill himself. That's one more than the number of condemned killers who have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.
On Monday, victims rights groups called the statistic emblematic of a flawed judicial system in which prolonged appeals enable more condemned inmates to die of natural causes and suicide than execution. However, inmates rights advocates pointed to the prison systems' suicide rates as an indictment of mental health care behind bars.
Reynolds, 25, was sent to death row for the murder and rape of Estela Perez, a 29-year-old mother of two. Perez was stabbed 33 times and raped with a large object in her children's bedroom in March 2005. He pleaded guilty to the crimes in January and was sentenced May 4.
Reynolds had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and the sentencing judge called him a "fundamentally violent person."
Before being sentenced to death, Reynolds' attorneys said he deserved mercy because of his troubled childhood. Reynolds gave a confusing explanation of why he committed the crimes.
"All I can tell people with questions, if they look in their heart and they will find the answer," Reynolds said. "... If people look up they will find the answer."
Perez was five months' pregnant and had just dropped her two children off at elementary school. She was planning to meet her sister, Antonia Galindo, to go for a walk and head to Starbucks. Instead, she was killed inside her Fairmount Boulevard home.
"For me it's meant the worst horror of my life," Galindo testified during the penalty phase of the trial. "I cannot sleep at night because I see her on the floor."
Police captured Reynolds a few months later after he sexually assaulted another woman in Riverside. His DNA matched evidence from the Perez killing. The crimes outraged some city residents because Reynolds had been released from prison 19 days earlier after a burglary conviction. He was assigned to live in a nearby group home. The public outcry led to state legislation allowing local governments more control over the location of such homes.
'It Doesn't Surprise Me'
In the days Reynolds was on his own, he told his parole officer that he felt he needed to return to prison.
"I think his life was a living hell. He was severely mentally ill genetically from birth," said Mark Johnson, who defended Reynolds. "I'm saddened by it but it doesn't surprise me at all. We have no conception of how mentally ill he was."
Reynolds had a long history of violence. He was in fifth grade when the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services removed him and his siblings from their home. Reynolds had broken his mother's jaw with a baseball bat when she threatened to cut off his genitals while she was bathing him.
San Quentin prison staffers said they found Reynolds hanging from his bunk just after 8:30 p.m. Sunday with a makeshift noose fashioned from his bed sheets.
Reynolds was what is known as a "walk alone" inmate, who is not allowed to go the exercise yard with other inmates, said San Quentin spokesman Lt. Eric Messick. New inmates are typically segregated until they can be categorized based on the security risk they pose as well as the dangers they face from other inmates.
Reynolds was not on suicide watch, and his mental health diagnosis did not require intensive treatment, Messick added.
"It's kind of surprising when a man is here only 30 days and commits suicide," Messick said. "It's the second leading cause of death here, but I can't remember anyone doing it so soon, and I've been here 25 years. Usually it comes from the despair of having no end in sight."
Most inmates on death row die of natural causes. Of the 666 people on death row, 71 have died -- mainly from natural causes, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
In California, an inmate averages 17.5 years on death row before being executed, Thornton said.
By state law, Reynolds' death sentence was automatically appealed, but Johnson said it would have been another few years before he would have been assigned an appeals attorney.
The number of suicides in California prisons has been closely watched because of a class-action lawsuit alleging inadequate mental health treatment for prisoners, Thornton said. Last year, 43 California inmates killed themselves.
The department recently implemented a suicide reduction plan aimed at improving conditions for inmates who are isolated from others. The plan includes an increase in the number of mental health evaluations, and the department has begun allowing segregated inmates to have televisions to combat the effects of sensory deprivation.
The Prison Law Office, an inmate advocacy group that brought the class-action lawsuit, said more improvements are needed. Not all death row inmates are segregated from other inmates. However, walk-alone inmates such as Reynolds receive very little time outdoors on a small square of concrete, said staff attorney Steve Fama. They frequently spend more than 23 hours a day alone in their cells, he said. The level of mental health care for such inmates is still inadequate, Fama added.
Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights' group, said the death row suicide rate reflects a backlogged legal system that subjects victims and their families to decades of despair as they wait for justice.
Appeals often drag on unnecessarily even when the inmates and victims' families ask to end the appeal process, he said.
"I hear the pain in their voices as they get frustrated with the system," Scheidegger said. "It takes too long."
Reach Sonja Bjelland at 951-368-9642 or sbjelland@PE.com
Reach Paige Austin at 951-893-2106 or paustin@PE.com
BY THE NUMBERS
Inmates on death row: 666
From Riverside County: 60
From San Bernardino County: 37
Leading causes of death on death row
Natural causes: 38