Calif. killer's life sentence highlights death penalty flaws; state has 700 stuck on death row
By PAUL ELIAS
The Associated Press
Chelsea King's parents reluctantly agreed to a sentence of life in prison for their daughter's rapist and killer, calling the death penalty in California "an empty promise."
The Kings join a growing list of victims' families, law enforcement officials and other capital punishment proponents who have grown disillusioned with California's death penalty. The decision to forego capital punishment for registered sex offender John Gardner, who this month admitted killing Chelsea King and another teen girl, has once again thrust the gridlocked system into the spotlight.
Five more inmates joined California's death row this year, pushing the population past a record 700 inmates, by far the nation's largest.
Florida is second with 394 inmates on death row, and Texas is third with 333, but both of those states regularly carry out executions.
Legal challenges over how lethal injections are administered to condemned prisoners in California have halted executions in the state since Clarence Ray Allen was put to death Jan. 17, 2006. The lawsuits are far from being resolved, and most observers believe it could be years before another execution takes place at San Quentin Prison.
Even before the suspension, only 13 condemned inmates have been executed from the time capital punishment resumed in the state in 1977 until February 2006, when U.S. District Court Jeremy Fogel halted executions until prison officials revamped their lethal injection process.
After a lengthy regulatory review, the Department of Corrections is expected to issue the long-awaited new protocols this week.
Still, state and federal judges must approve the new regulations before executions can resume — and lawyers challenging the death penalty promise to vigorously attack the new protocols as inadequate.
California Chief Justice Ron George told the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that the state's capital punishment system is "dysfunctional." Death penalty appeals account for 25 percent of the high court's workload, he has said.
"Most of us realize a death sentence at this time is a hollow promise in California," San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said at the news conference with the King family announcing that Gardner would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
Dumanis said in a telephone interview Thursday that she still files death penalty cases when appropriate "because it's the law," but the state's glacial execution rate is frustrating to victims' families.
"They have to live with it every day," she said.
In voicing frustration with capital punishment, these supporters of the penalty are lending momentum to a renewed push by death penalty foes to abolish executions in California.
With the state's financial woes as a backdrop, the foes have launched a new assault on the death penalty, saying California cannot afford it.
The state Legislature created the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to investigate the chronic problems with the state's death penalty. The commission concluded that the state needed to spend more money, mostly on hiring more defense attorneys to hasten the automatic appeal process.
The commission, led by former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, released a study in 2008 concluding that capital cases cost the state an additional $125 million a year to administer. In response to a court order, the Department of Corrections spent $400 million building a new death chamber and death row.
"We are spending money on a broken death penalty," said Natasha Minsker, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who won the Abolitionist of the Year award from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in 2008. "We aren't spending money on unsolved murders and other crimes. These are the trade-offs we are making."
The system is so topsy-turvy that convicted killer Billy Joe Johnson last year fought for a lethal injection sentence rather than life imprisonment at Pelican Bay State Prison. The convicted killer said death row inmates enjoy better accommodations such as larger cells that they don't have to share and access to television.
When a jury and a judge granted the white supremacist leader his wish, he was packed off to death row last year knowing that nearly all inmates there die of causes other than executions.
The state's capital punishment system also let down Maria Keever, who was counting on the death penalty to punish her son's killer.
Keever demanded that Scott Erskine receive the death penalty for murdering and raping her 13-year-old son and another boy in 1993 in San Diego.
Erskine was sentenced to die in 2004. The California Supreme Court has yet to schedule a hearing for Erskine's automatic appeal to the high court.
"He's up there watching television knowing I am going to die before he does," said Maria Keever. "The system is not what they say it is."