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May 27, 2012

Should the DEATH PENALTY Die in California?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ashedit @ 9:56 am

MY FAVORITE “PROPOSITION LADY” isn‘t who you might think. She’s the gal who hangs outside my local post office soliciting signatures to qualify propositions for upcoming State elections. She receives pay for the signatures she gathers. Recently I greeted her with the usual, “What’s new?!” and she presented me with a petition to abolish the Death Penalty. As I read it, standing in the glare of the midday sun in front of the post office, I experienced an epiphany. After 45-plus years, I suddenly no longer “believed” in the death penalty.

It occurred to me in a flash that most death-row inmates in California (unlike Texas) die of old age after decades of appeals (and appeals on their last appeal). I began to ponder the expense of maintaining prisoners who are clearly not going to be executed by the state. Then I wondered how many defendants were free or convicted of lesser charges because well-intentioned citizens were reluctant to sentence a defendant to the big “D”—regardless of how deserving of the defendant was of the punishment. With a little research I discovered all my questions had readily available answers.

OF ALL THE STATE PRISONS IN CALIFORNIA for men and women, San Quentin is the only one with a Death Row—a sterile version of Dante’s Hell. The gray granite walls, quarried and built by inmates over 150 years ago, match the hard cement floors. In the winter the cold fog rolls in under the Golden Gate Bridge with a bone chilling dampness which underscores the numbness of life without human contact.  There’s no intimacy, no love, not even human conversation. Being sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and the cold Pacific Ocean, summers are only slightly warmer with an occasional spell of unbearably hot, humid heat.

The monotonous routine of clanging steel cell doors is periodically pierced by the anguished shouts of mentally tortured lives waiting to be extinguished. The only semblance of civilization is kept alive by the tenuous hope for survival that clings to news of the last appeal and plotting the next appeal.

There’s a caste system on Death Row. In reality, there are three of them. About 75 condemned inmates are housed in the original area built in 1934. This relatively quiet cell block is called North-Segregation. It’s for inmates who “play well with others” and are not disciplinary problems. About 450 condemned live in East Block, a falling down, dilapidated, leaky rabbit pen built in 1927. It’s an old fashioned 5-story cage housed in a block building. The incessant din of chatter, shrieks, and metal on metal clanging is a mind-numbing, 24 hour reality—a special hell. The cells house those who have murdered their victims in the most gruesome ways. Most are violent, mentally ill behavior problems that “don’t play well with others.”

Last, and deservedly least of the three Death Rows, is the infamous, cynically named Adjustment Center. This is where the worst of the “badasses” are warehoused. They are under heavy guard and total isolation. They are “allowed” to exercise in 8 by 10-foot cages under constant supervision by armed guards. Richard Allen Davis, the man who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma in 1993 is housed here. He’s been assaulted and spat upon by other inmates at least three times. Not so much because he killed a child, but because most inmates blame him for the three-strikes law. Given the chance, any inmate would kill him.

Richard Ramirez, our own home-grown Satan dubbed the “Night Stalker” also resides in the Adjustment Center. This is where he receives fan mail from adoring women. He’s best known by prison officials for exposing himself to children in the prisoner’s visiting area.

But even in this twisted civilization, moral distinctions exist. In 1992, as Robert Alton Harris was led away to execution, his fellow inmates jeered him about eating the unfinished hamburgers of his young murder victims, and taunted him with cries of “Baby Killer.”

OLD AGE SEEMS TO BE THE GREATEST THREAT to life here these days. Recently, Dennis Lawley, age 69, died of natural causes. He was convicted in 1989. Frank Manuel Abilez, age 53, died also of natural causes. He was convicted of sodomizing and strangling his mother to death in 1997.

California currently hosts 722 inmates on death row. Since 1978, 76 inmates died of natural causes or suicide while 14 were executed. In that same span of years California spent $14 billion dollars maintaining these folks as inmates. Do the math. We spent $285 million dollars per execution. This does not include the expense of post-conviction prosecution and defense attorneys pegged by the ACLU at $85,000 per death-row inmate per year. There are no death row inmates wealthy enough to pay their own legal fees so California taxpayers pick up the bill. In total, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice 2009 pegs the tab at $137 million. Comparatively, permanent imprisonment of all those on Death Row would cost only $11 million. It seems a mini-industry has emerged from California’s broken capital punishment system. (Ironically, suicide on death row is hard to pull off. Residents are on what would otherwise be called “suicide watch.”)

If the death sentences of  722 death-row inmates were commuted to permanent imprisonment without possibility of parole, the State of California’s annual savings would be at least $191,620,000. We would spend $126,000,000 less in annual maintenance as “general population prisoners” and another $65,620,000 less in post-conviction appeal costs.

Why without possibility of parole? The reason is to avoid parole-review farces like the recurring circus of Charles Manson and his acolytes. Because Chief Justice Rose Bird overturned the death penalty during her ten-year tenure, when Manson et al were on trial, this bloody mass murderer and his accomplices are eligible for review every few years. The gruesome nightmare gets revisited in the press, puts the families through agony all over again, and arguably glorifies Manson’s celebrity.

Bird was later removed from office by California voters—too late for the families of Sharon Tate and her unborn child, Jay Sebring, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski.

BECAUSE OF THE BURGEONING DEATH ROW POPULATION, California must soon build a new Death Row facility at a cost estimated well above $250 million. The cost of building new maximum security facilities for an equal number of inmates is estimated at $175 million. There’s a quick, one-time savings of $75 million. There’s also the more subtle savings in interest on the state bonds that would be created to pay for construction. These savings would go on for years, as would the lower costs of maintaining much simpler facilities. It becomes the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.

These savings wouldn’t bail California out of its current deficit nightmare, but if retained in the state prison system, the savings would stop the transfer of state prisoners to local county jails. Many counties are having their own budget problems which are exacerbated by having to accommodate scores of “extra guests” with very little extra funding.

THE CURRENT DEATH ROW POPULATION of 722 could easily merge within the existing state prisons, totaling tens of thousands of prisoners. There are similar percentages of mentally unstable inmates in both groups and all prisons. Facilities to accommodate the hardest to handle of both groups already exist within the three highest security prisons—Pelican Bay State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi. Although already over-crowded, the three prisons have a total population of slightly under 7,000. There are 30-plus more facilities to ease the burden.

California can no longer afford the luxury of pretending to keep 772 prisoners for executions that will never happen, at an expense that is almost as murky and complex as the national defense budget.  It’s all at the taxpayer’s expense.

That’s why I no longer support the Death Penalty in California.  For the first 45 years of my life I wasn’t swayed by moral and ethical issues set forth by different religious and advocacy groups for abolition of the ultimate punishment. I’m still not. It’s just that I can no longer afford the Death Penalty in California.

Thomas Burney graduated from Boston University in 1968 with a BS in
Journalism and entered three years of military service. After seeing how journalism was handled in Vietnam, he swore off the profession for life and gained honest work in real estate development and the oil industry. In 1978 he became an entrepreneur  and retired after 25 years to small business consulting, volunteerism and leisure.  This is his first political editorial since the Vietnam war ended.

PHOTOS: Elaine Ash



  1. I’m delighted to welcome Tom Burney to Ashedit. While I feel that the death penalty is a powerful tool deterring would-be murderers, (and I’m open to pro-penalty opinions, particularly from law enforcement professionals), the 16-billion dollar deficit in California is “the elephant in the room” when it comes to cost-savings. I have to agree with Tom that if the state is unwilling to carry out the penalty, we must in good conscience save tax-payers from needless and heedless expense. One thing is certain, there are no easy answers.

    Comment by ashedit — May 27, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  2. As I’ve often said, we don’t really have the death penalty anyway. Why pretend that we do.

    Comment by charlesgramlich — May 27, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  3. I find the argument in this post very persuasive.

    Comment by Al Tucher — May 27, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  4. Not to sound blunt, but we have a similar situation here in CT. The death penalty was repealed mostly due to what was stated in this post. Granted, it’s a financial quagmire (only had one prison executed since the death penalty was re-established and he volunteered), but some of the reasons behind the financial quagmire can be found in the first part of this post.

    The other reason that I believe contributes to the financial quagmire is that death row prisoners are allowed unlimited appeals. The process definitely needs to be streamlined and while we don’t want to go back to the days where one was sentenced in April in a given year then executed six months later, neither should we allow prisoners to beat the system by appealing until people get fed up (cop killer Jamal in Pennsylvania is a prime example).

    As it is, because of the stupidity of repealing the death penalty here in CT, you have about a dozen death row inmates suing the state on the grounds that since the death penalty was revoked going forward (after the Cheshire murder trials) they should have their sentences commuted.

    Comment by G. B. Miller — May 28, 2012 @ 2:58 am

  5. George, thank you for this reasoned comment. I actually had no idea of the situation in CT. Thank you. EA

    Comment by ashedit — May 28, 2012 @ 6:17 am

  6. Old West Justice needs to raise its head again to get rid of the endless appeals and exhorbitant costs of keeping killers alive.

    Comment by — May 28, 2012 @ 6:43 am

  7. Californian’s favor the death penalty by a 2-1 margin and there is no significant trend to change that position. Life imprisonment would be much more expensive due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time. (It is nothing more than a bribe in a vain effort to obtain conservative votes.) Bottom line, the “SAFE” Act is another attempt by those who are responsible for the high costs and lack of executions to now persuade voters to abandon it. Obviously, the arguments of the proponents of the SAFE Act would disappear if the death penalty was carried forth in accordance with the law. Get the facts at

    Comment by CBernstien — May 28, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  8. CBernstien – Californians probably do favor the death penalty 2 to 1, but then they vote Democratic in about the same ratio. A majority reject legal abortion. They have historically supported new spending programs but reject bond issues and new taxes. If the people of California were an individual we would ask a judge to appoint a legal guardian. The terms “Dysfunctional”, “Unsustainable” and “Schizophrenic” come to mind, just not sure how to apply them so even a California judge could make the connection…

    Comment by Tom Burney — May 28, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

  9. A very well-argued and cogent plea to ending the death penalty.

    Comment by Mar Preston — May 28, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  10. By not having the death penalty this country is not living up to what it claims in the Pledge of Alligeance “one nation under God” or its national motto “in God we trust”. God’s word as written in the Holy Bible states many time and ways that anyone that kills or causes the death of another “must surely be put to death.”

    Comment by Anonymous — June 14, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

  11. Yeah, the law is the Constitution, not the pledge or the motto, which was ratified long after the founders were dead, by religious extremists.
    Unlike “God,” the State is not infallible. That is the reason for the appeals process. I’d argue that life without parole is worse than a death sentence, and if it is cheaper and allows us to rectify mistakes- like the thousands freed by DNA evidence and malfeasance by overzealous prosecutors- do away with it.
    Our blood lust is not worthy of appeasement.

    Comment by Thomas Pluck — June 20, 2012 @ 5:20 am

  12. Hi Thomas! I just want to say I am so pleased with comments on this potentially explosive topic. I think it’s been a model of civility. If only hot-potato topics outside this blog could be handled the same way, I think everyone would have a better grasp of issues and we might actually make progress. Thank you, everyone who left a comment, no mater what your position.

    Comment by ashedit — June 20, 2012 @ 6:28 am

  13. I am absolutely in agreement with you on cutting the cost of dealing with these criminals, and whatever the solution, they need to be out of society permanently. I think there are a lot of things we need to do and I believe society bears some of the responsibility for all the criminal cases–but that’s another conversation. What I want to touch on is I am not a theist, but absolutely believe the most important consideration to be the Ethical one. The financial decision is easy, the ethical one takes some thinking. As has been pointed out in the comments the population in this country seems to be okay individually, but the insanity witnessed when we evolve public institutions is shameful. For all those able to empathize, consider that those convicted usually have a series of things working against them including; moral dysfunction, abuse, brain dysfunction etc. There are many things going on that make their chance of avoiding such egregious actions much more probable than those of us who manage to be able to make better choices. What I am saying is if you have managed to be ‘normal’ don’t pat yourself on the back–be thankful you have the capacity to do so. The early inhabitants of this country had an excuse, they didn’t know better. They killed someone–let’s kill them. We don’t have that in our favor–we know some people just aren’t able to tow the line.

    Comment by Pat — June 30, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

  14. Your point is well-taken. However the Ethical issue is multi-faceted. It’s not only society’s duty to the individual, but also the individual’s duty to society. Where we get in the weeds is when society reacts to an individual member’s threat to the group. When there’s a perception of limited resources, i.e. government funds to achieve/enforce society’s goals, critical decisions must be made. Hopefully the decisions are not made in a moral or ethical vacuum. I wonder about that…

    Comment by Tom Burney — June 30, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

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