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Death Penalty Delays
California's voters continue to support the Death Penalty, it's time to streamline...

[by Roy Ashburn] 12/27/05

The recent spotlight on the impending execution of multiple-murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams has once again highlighted the flaws in California’s death penalty law. Williams was put to death at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, after he was denied clemency by Governor Schwarzenegger. Williams was convicted in 1981 of murdering four people and sentenced to death. Yet 26 years after his victims took their final breaths, the killer still lives. His lawyers have continued to maneuver to thwart the sentence duly handed down by a jury of his peers until the very end.

Williams’s case demonstrates just how dysfunctional the death penalty process is in California.

Guest Contributor
Roy Ashburn

Mr. Asburn is a mermber of the California Senate representing Tulare, Kern, Inyo, and San Bernardino Counties [go t
o Guest index]

The seemingly endless appeals process for condemned killers now faces a backlog of about 650 individuals living on death row. Since the death penalty was reestablished in California in 1977 only eleven executions have taken place, while 30 death row inmates have died from natural causes. For the handful of executions that have taken place, the average delay from the courthouse steps to the chamber at San Quentin is 16 years.

Under both California and Federal Law there is a specific, detailed and lengthy appeals process that must be followed before an inmate may be scheduled for execution. Adding to the delays is the fact that the kinds of inmates who commit capital offenses tend to be indigent and unable to pay for their own defense. Those with some financial means usually exhaust their resources before the appeal process is completed. As a result most death penalty appeals fall on the shoulders of the Office of the State Public Defender.

Those cases must then be prioritized, funded, and staffed along with the myriad of other cases the public defender is tasked with, resulting in still more delays.

Death by old age was not what the voters had in mind when they reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Delays and backlogs may serve the desires of death penalty opponents; however the people of California continue to demand the ultimate punishment for the most heinous of crimes. Since 1977 California has experienced wide swings in ideological trends and partisan preferences. During that time however one policy stance has remained consistent: support for the death penalty. The respected Field Poll has shown support ranging from two-thirds to three-quarters of Californians.

Is it even possible then to both fulfill the wishes of California’s citizens and comply with the lengthy appeals mandated under federal law? Clearly it is possible, as demonstrated in the state of Texas. Compared to California's 11 executions in 30 years, Texas has carried out 355 capital sentences, during the same time period. They have streamlined their death row appellate process and eliminated other legal hurdles, without denying any single killer his right to appeal.

Similar capital punishment reform can be accomplished in California, which is why I have co-authored Senate Bill 378 (Morrow). In the mid 1990s the legislature created the California Habeas Corpus Resource Center (HCRC) whose purpose is to represent indigent death row defendants and get the appeal process moving. SB 378 builds on those efforts by nearly tripling the size of the HCRC from its present 45 lawyers and staff to 127. The bill also requires competency standards for the lead counsel in death penalty appeals. This will minimize the all too common last minute plea that "incompetent" lawyers represented the defendant during his appeals. SB 378 also contains a dozen or so other legal remedies, which will eliminate unreasonable delays in the resolution of post conviction issues and reduce the number of proceedings in capital cases.

If any criminal punishment is to have a deterrent effect, such punishment must be swift and certain. Until the death penalty is carried out in such a fashion in our state, innocent Californians will continue to be assaulted and murdered. That capital punishment is a deterrent is beyond dispute. Since the State of Texas made a serious effort to carry out the death sentence in the 1990s, the murder rate fell 60% while the national murder rate fell just 33%.

The Stanley “Tookie” Williams case has reminded us once again how violent murderers continue to live out their lives on death row, reading and writing and taking a deep breath each morning when they awake. At the same time the families of their victims continue to shed tears for the cruel and violent loss of their loved ones. It is not about any one killer and the regret he may have for horrors committed long ago. It is instead time to send a message to potential killers in our midst. It is time to show that punishment for the most brutal murders will be swift and severe. Our families deserve nothing less.

Senator Ashburn represents the 18th Senate District including Tulare, Kern, Inyo, and San Bernardino Counties. CRO






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