« "Should Paris Hilton Receive a Lighter Prison Sentence Because She's Rich? Evidence from a Survey Experiment" | Main | "Evidence, Ideology, and Politics in the Making of American Criminal Justice Policy" »

October 6, 2013

More evidence of the sad perversity of California's administration of the death penalty

SealCAAs the title of this post reveals, I have now decided that the best adjectives to describe the administration of the quasi-dormant death penalty in California are sad and perverse.  This new local article, headlined "Serial killer's death sentence revives capital punishment debate," highlights why:

In 1977, 19-year-old Larry Roggasch cracked open a six-pack of beer, pouring three on his little sister's freshly covered grave in their native San Jose, and made a promise: He would see that the man who raped, strangled and dumped her on a Marin County hillside be punished.

Thirty-six years later, judgment day looms for serial killer Joseph Naso, who at age 79 will become the oldest person ever sentenced to death in California when a judge next month pronounces his penalty for the murders of 18-year-old Roxene Roggasch and three other Northern California prostitutes.

But Larry Roggasch doesn't know whether he can bear to watch Naso receive what seems to him a hollow sentence. With an ongoing moratorium on executions in California and hundreds of convicted murderers awaiting capital punishment, there is virtually no chance the state will ever put Naso to death.

"It's a joke; he's never going to be executed," said Roggasch, a 56-year-old commercial fisherman. "He's going to live out the rest of his life safe and comfortable in his own cell on death row. That's why I want him to go to mainline prison," Roggasch continued. "He needs to suffer, like them -- not just my sister, all of them."

In California, the death penalty appeals process takes so long that men half Naso's age on death row are more likely to die of natural causes or kill themselves than be executed by the state. And while they wait on San Quentin State Prison's death row, they lead a relatively comfortable existence, with single cells and access to the best attorneys fighting for prisoners' rights.

But on the heels of voters narrowly choosing to preserve the death penalty last year, California's district attorneys and peace officers are readying a proposition for the 2014 ballot that they say would expedite executions once the state lifts its moratorium on lethal injection drugs. Among those spearheading the effort are District Attorneys Steve Wagstaffe of San Mateo County, Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County and Mark Peterson, whose Contra Costa County territory has been the scene of death penalty defendants mocking the threat of capital punishment in recent years.

"Some individuals facing murder charges would prefer the death penalty to life without parole because they believe the conditions on death row are better than among the general population," said Larry Barnes, a private defense attorney and death penalty expert. "They harbor the opinion that with some 720 men on death row, unless they are very young, they don't stand a chance of being executed."

Such was the case with Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza killer Nathan Burris, who practically begged Contra Costa County jurors to give him the death penalty at his trial last year for the jealousy-fueled ambush killing of his ex-girlfriend and her friend.

"If I was in Texas, I'd be terrified," Burris said from the witness stand in 2012. "California is not real. The death penalty means nothing to me but time to hang out and do what I'm going to do."

In the same courtroom three years earlier, Edward Wycoff received the death penalty for the ambush slayings of his sister and brother-in-law in El Cerrito. He told jurors that he deserved an award, not the death penalty, but still wanted the one-to-a-cell status that death row provides.

Between California resuming executions in 1992 and the beginning of the state's judicially imposed moratorium in 2006, just 13 men who exhausted their appeals have been executed. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation counts 722 men and 20 women currently on death row, nearly 300 of whom have had their sentences affirmed by the Supreme Court. Experts say it takes 12 years on average for condemned inmates in California to exhaust their appeals, more than twice the national average for death penalty states.

Meanwhile, the costs mount; by one estimate, the state has spent more than $4 billion on death penalty trials, appeals and incarceration since 1978. "The death penalty process is broken, there is no dispute about that," said Peterson, who is part of Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings, a coalition of district attorneys, law enforcement professionals and victims' rights advocates in the process of raising $1.7 million to get on the November 2014 ballot an initiative they believe would cut the appeal process in half and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year....

But Ana Zamora, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said Peterson and his coalition face "a serious uphill battle.  The death penalty system is so broken beyond repair, there is no fixing the system that won't cost millions and millions and won't put at risk executing innocent people," she said.

In the meantime, San Quentin's death row more and more resembles a geriatric ward. Killer and serial rapist Darryl Kemp currently holds the distinction as the oldest person to be sentenced to death in advance of Naso's Nov. 8 sentencing. Kemp was 73 when he slept through his 2009 trial and sentencing for the rape and murder of a Lafayette mother three decades earlier.

It was the second death sentence for Kemp, who killed just four months after he was released from San Quentin in 1978 after a California Supreme Court ruling that made capital punishment unconstitutional and commuted all death sentences to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Today, at age 77, Kemp is in the preliminary stage of his appeal that will stretch for years.

I would like to believe that some kind of successful initiative campaign in California could somehow succeed in making the state's death penalty system less sad and perverse. But I suspect and fear that it is the deep ambivalence of California's populace, politicians and population of lawyers concerning a truly functional capital punishment system that has led to the current mess, and I doubt any set of formal legal changes are likely to be able to effectively transform the system's sad and perverse realities anytime soon.

October 6, 2013 at 11:23 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference More evidence of the sad perversity of California's administration of the death penalty:


We can blame 'rat judges and elected 'rats.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 6, 2013 12:37:43 PM

I know a couple of appellate lawyers for the defense, in California. They are sincere in their beliefs, although they refuse to disclose their economic self interest. They are not responsible for their zealous representation, seen as a duty by them. I advocate that the families of victims target appellate judges who fully responsible for the above situation. Demand they be removed. If not removed, direct action has full justification in formal logic (from their immunities), utility, and morality (heartless cruelty towards victims).

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 6, 2013 8:37:50 PM

“ In 2004, Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt admitted that out of twelve death cases he had heard, he had voted against death in every single one. ”

For some specificity,
Stephen Reinhardt, judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals covering California has been operating in this influential capacity since 1980 (23 years and counting).
Ramona Ripston -- his wife -- Exec. Dir. of the ACLU of So Cal., & member of Cal. State Commission on Judicial Performance,
served as ACLU/SC director between 1972 and 2011 (38 years).

As both are inveterate liberals and anti-death penalty activists
– "[I] was a liberal from a very young age, "I think I was born that way" --
the administration of death penalty cases in California has been characterised by incredible delays and cancellations, due to Machiavellian
liberals-such-as-these behind and before the Court bench.

Aside from legally indefensible instances in which he and others vacated or impaired death penalty administration, the excerpt below speaks volumes on the character
of this liberal bully:
----------------“Judge Stephen Reinhardt…who had known her for years, said Ms. Bird had ''a total passion for, and commitment to, justice.''

----------------''In some ways, she was just too good to be a judge, he said. ''She had a total passion and commitment,
----------------and that's not always the best way to function and get along in this world, in a political environment.”

After the death penalty was reinstated in California in the late 1970's, Judge Bird never upheld a death sentence.
She reviewed a total of 64 capital cases appealed to the court.
In each instance she issued a decision overturning the death penalty that had been imposed at trial.

In addition, the Bird court struck down California's "use a gun, go to jail" law ..
But in 1986, voters angry at her opposition to the death penalty removed her and two other Brown-appointed justices ... They were the first such removals in California history.


Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 9, 2013 10:14:02 AM

Stephen Reinhardt, judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals covering California, has been operating in this influential capacity since 1980 (33 years and counting).

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 9, 2013 10:56:47 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB