Life imprisonment

Katrina evacuee on Texas death row gets life term – Roosevelt Smith Jr.


November 7, 2012 http://www.chron.com

DALLAS  — A Louisiana man’s death sentence in Texas has been reduced to life in prison without parole in the killing of a woman who helped him when he relocated after Hurricane Katrina.

Attorneys for 50-year-old Roosevelt Smith Jr. contended he’s mentally impaired and ineligible for execution under Supreme Court guidelines.

A state-appointed psychologist determined Smith was impaired. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday agreed.

Smith, who was from Napoleonville, La., was condemned for beating and strangling 77-year-old Betty Blair in October 2005 at her home in Pasadena, just east of Houston. She’d been helping evacuees at a church and hired Smith and others to do odd jobs. He earlier had several burglary convictions and prison stints in Louisiana

California’s Death Penalty: All Cost and No Benefit by Danny Glover and Mike Farrell


November 4, 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.com

While many important issues will be decided this Tuesday, one stands out for its national and historic importance: In California, the future of the death penalty hangs in the balance with Proposition 34. Also known as the SAFE California Act of 2012, Prop 34 will replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of parole.

The fact is, California’s death penalty is all cost and no benefit. The latest Field Poll, out Friday, shows that more voters than ever before support replacing the death penalty, and that Prop 34 is leading in the polls. The Field Poll says 45 percent of likely California voters support Prop 34, while 38 percent oppose. Of those who have already voted, a full 48 percent said they voted yes, while 42 percent voted no.

A big reason for the spectacular surge in support is people’s awareness that the Golden State is flat broke. Voters now understand that the death penalty is far more expensive than life in prison with no chance of parole. They realize that California has sunk billions of dollars into a broken system — while most death row inmates die of old age.

The costs come from special housing, special lawyers and special trials imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court to lessen the risk of executing another innocent person. And those costs really add up. According to The Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan government agency, Prop 34 will save the state $130 million every year. A comprehensive five-year study by Federal Judge Arthur Alarcón (who is pro-death penalty) and Loyola Law Professor Paula Mitchell (who is not) showed the state has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. They’ve just updated that report to show that California is on track to spend $5 to $7 billion, over and above the cost of a sentence of life in prison without parole, between now and 2050. Five to seven billion dollars!

It’s staggering to realize that with all those billions spent, California has executed only 13 inmates since 1978, at a cost of about $307 million per execution.

But money’s not everything. The fact is that the death penalty is not making us any safer. A shocking 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved in California every year. California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released a report yesterdayshowing that underfunded, overburdened crime labs with long backlogs can’t process the evidence needed to solve crimes. Prop 34 would direct $100 million of the savings into local law enforcement programs and activities, like DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, and better funding of local crime labs, so we can find the criminals responsible and put them in jail. It’s no secret that the best way to prevent crime is to solve it.

California’s Prop 34 vote has all the markings of a historic shift away from the death penalty in the United States. Support for undoing this ineffective policy in the nation’s largest and most populous state is broad and deep, and includes some surprising voices. Supporters include the lead campaigner for the 1978 death penalty initiative, Ron Briggs, the author of that original law, Don Heller, former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti and staunch conservative Bill O’Reilly. Jeanne Woodford, a life-long corrections professional who served as Warden of San Quentin and oversaw four executions is the official spokesperson for the initiative. The Sacramento Bee even reversed its 155-year support for the death penalty to endorse YES on 34, joining 47 major newspapers from across the state.

The vote in California will be felt far and wide. Our state has the dubious distinction of housing nearly one-quarter of the nation’s death row inmates and the most expensive death row in the nation. Tragically, California leads the nation in wrongful convictions at 123, according to theNational Registry of Exonerations. So if any state could make another fatal mistake, it’s this one. Passing Prop 34 will ensure that doesn’t happen.

What’s clear is that the death penalty is broken beyond repair, and it’s time to replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. We support Prop 34 — and we encourage California voters to get the facts and vote YES on 34 on Tuesday.

California’s longest-serving death row inmate spared execution – Douglas Stankewitz,


October 30,2012 http://www.chicagotribune.com

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of California’s longest serving death row inmate, a 54-year-old Mono Indian man convicted in 1978 for killing a woman during a drug- and alcohol-fueled carjacking.

Douglas Stankewitz, who has spent 34 years awaiting execution, will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless prosecutors decide within 90 days to retry the penalty phase of his trial, which would consider punishment only, not guilt or innocence.

The decision late on Monday by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals comes just a week before Californians vote on a referendum to abolish the death penalty in the state.

A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006, saying a three-drug lethal injection protocol risked causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death. California revised its protocol, but executions have not resumed.

An appeals court panel, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Stankewitz received ineffective legal counsel during the penalty phase of his murder trial, when he was sentenced to die.

His lawyer, they wrote, failed to investigate and present evidence “including evidence of his deprived and abusive upbringing, potential mental illness, long history of substance abuse and use of substantial quantities of drugs leading up to the murder.”

In a recent interview with Reuters inside San Quentin State Prison, Stankewitz called the death penalty “a joke,” and described how long delays in the appeals process, coupled with ineffective counsel, had led to him spending more than three decades waiting to die.

“They can’t kill me because the system is messed up so bad,” Stankewitz told Reuters during that interview.

Stankewitz suffered alcohol exposure in the womb, was removed from his home at age 6 after his mother beat him and bounced between foster care facilities where he was severely troubled and abused, court documents show.

He was 19 when he and a group of friends carjacked Theresa Graybeal, 22, from a K-Mart parking lot in Modesto and drove across California’s rural heartland to Fresno, roughly 100 miles away. There, Graybeal was shot and killed.

Vote Yes on Prop 34 by Frank Carrillo (Exonerated of murder after 20 years in prison)


October 23, 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Freedom.

It’s hard to imagine it being taken away without just cause. But it happens — more often than you might think.

When I was just 16 years old, I was stripped of my freedom, wrongfully convicted of a murder I did not commit. I spent twenty years behind bars before I was finally able to prove my innocence.

But I always wonder, if I had been sentenced to death, would I have been able to prove my innocence in time?

This is why I believe so strongly in Proposition 34, which will replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole. With the election just two weeks away, it’s a critical time to make sure California voters hear about the true costs of the death penalty.

Today we’re launching our first Yes on 34 TV ad across the state’s airwaves, urging millions of California voters to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. With this new ad, my story will travel farther than ever before — on television.

Most people can’t imagine being found guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. I never expected that my youth would slip away in prison after I was wrongly convicted. But with this new TV ad, millions of viewers across the state can hear my real-life story and learn that our criminal justice system is good but not perfect. I am living proof that with the death penalty we always risk the execution of an innocent person.

I am honored by the all-star team that came together to help share my story of wrongful conviction with voters — including Emmy-winner Martin Sheen, iconic actor and director Edward James Olmos, Grammy- and Academy Award-winner and world-famous musician Hans Zimmer and Lili Haydn, the “Jimi Hendrix” of violin.

Also Donald Heller, the man who wrote California’s death penalty law, will be sharing his story on the radio. He explains that he never considered the costs of implementing the law and now sees it as a “huge” mistake that also risks the execution of an innocent person.

Voting Yes on Proposition 34 makes sense for California. We can save $130 million every single year by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This money can be better spent on education and on tools that actually improve safety in our communities, like testing DNA evidence and investigating unsolved murders. We can also make sure that California never makes an irreversible mistake.

The TV ad that tells my story is just one part of the path to victory for Prop 34. You’ll be hearing our message on the radio and seeing our volunteer teams on the ground across California. We have two weeks left to get the facts about the death penalty to as many voters as possible. We can’t do this without the help from our hard-working volunteers. Will you sign up to help Proposition 34 win on November 6? Then watch our campaign ad, and share with everyone you know.

Together, on November 6, we’ll make history.

Does The Death Penalty Provide ‘Closure’ to Victim’s Families? Three Perspectives


October 18, 2012 http://blogs.kqed.org

This coming election Californians will decide on Proposition 34, which would outlaw the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would also direct $30 million a year for three years to investigate unsolved rape and murder cases.

The measure is the latest chapter in a seesaw legal and political dispute over capital punishment that stretches back 50 years in California.

But setting aside the main argument of the “Yes on 34″ camp, that the billions of dollars spent on the death penalty could better be used to solve crimes; and “No on 34″ backers, that the death penalty process could be made more efficient and cheaper, there’s another issue that often comes up in the overall debate.

Many supporters of the death penalty say it is the only fair societal consequence for the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and that it gives victims’ families a sense of closure. Scott Shafer has been following this question around the death penalty for more than a dozen years, and he frequently addresses the question of closure in his reporting.

Earlier this year, Shafer interviewed Mark Klaas, father of Polly Klaas — the 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her Petaluma home and murdered by Richard Allen Davis. Klaas has long been an advocate of the death penalty and opposes Prop. 34. He told Shafer that families say witnessing the execution of the perpetrator of a crime against a family member has helped them.

Mark Klaas: It does make a difference. It’s about carrying out the law. It’s about the final judgment. Those individuals I’ve talked to -– family members who have witnessed executions — are grateful for the experience, sad that it had to come to that, but satisfied that justice has been fulfilled.

Scott Shafer: What do you mean they’re sad it had to come to that?

Mark Klaas: Well the taking of a life is not something that should ever be looked upon lightly. And nobody finds great joy in it, including the families of murder victims. And they know this better than anyone else. But it is the law, and it is a final judgment…

I believe [Davis’] execution would bring closure to my daughter. She is the one that he contemplates as he acts out in his prison cell. It’s not going to change my life one way or the other. But I don’t invest a lot of time or energy in thinking about Richard Allen Davis. He’s dominated my family’s life quite enough as it is. I’m content to see him at least be on death row and know that at some point he may have to face that final judgment.

As warden at San Quentin Prison, home of California’s only death row for men, Jeanne Woodford presided over four executions. She says it’s a “natural reaction,” to want someone who harmed a loved one to die, but says she thinks that closure does not come to pass for families. Shafer explored this question with her in an interview he conducted late last year. Woodford told him:

People wait years for an execution that may or may not happen. People come to the prison thinking that the execution will somehow bring closure to them. I’ve just never had someone who that’s happened to.

In fact, I’ve had reporters tell me that family members told them a month or two after the execution that they regretted having been involved in the process.

Then there’s the story of Gayle Orr, whom Shafer interviewed 10 years ago. In 1980 Orr’s 19-year-old daughter was stabbed and killed near Auburn. Her daughter’s murderer was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Orr entered what she calls a “period of darkness” during which she felt isolated and consumed with rage.

Eventually she started attending and taking classes at church, where a common topic was forgiveness. A classmate suggested that Orr should forgive her daughter’s murderer, which at first infuriated her  but ultimately prompted her to write a letter of forgiveness to her daughter’s killer.

“And the instant that I put that letter in the mailbox,” she told Shafer in that 2002 interview and confirmed in a phone call last week, “all the anger, all the rage, all the darkness that I’ve been carrying around, all the ugliness I’ve been carrying around in my body for 12 long years, instantly was gone. Just gone. And in its place I was filled with this sense of joy and love. And I was truly in a state of grace, simply from offering forgiveness to another human being.”

It’s now been 20 years since Orr mailed that letter. Since then she has created a foundation in her daughter’s name, dedicated to forgiveness and a peaceful world. Orr changed her name to “Aba Gayle,” which she says means “beloved of the Father,” and she is “totally and absolutely opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances.”

She believes that carrying anger and rage toward another person perpetuates one’s sense of being a victim. “Being a victim is a choice,” she says “and I have chosen not to be a victim any longer. … Not only did I heal myself, I healed my whole family. When you’re filled with rage, you can’t be a wife, you can’t be a mother, so healing that rage does so much benefit, not just to me, but to everyone around me.”

Aba Gayle said she still grieves for her daughter, and while she doesn’t believe her daughter’s murderer should be executed, she believes he should spend his life in prison.

CALIFORNIA -Loretta Carrico Russell: Two sisters murdered, but I’m against death penalty


October 14, 2012 http://www.redding.com

Californians will decide this November whether or not the death penalty dies by a vote of the people. Supporters of Savings Accountability Full Enforcement California Act or S.A.F.E. California, an anti-death penalty group, successfully gathered more than a half-million signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Being an opponent of the death penalty did not come easily to me. My conviction is motivated by 40 years of dealing with this emotional issue on a deeply personal level. Initially, I was in favor of the death penalty. I wanted revenge for my sisters. Karen was 21 when she was murdered by her husband. Her death was deemed an accidental beating.

Twenty years later, my sister Irene was murdered by her husband for leaving him.

Irene’s murder would have been a capital offense, according to the judge, had the accused not turned over state’s evidence. How could a small piece of rope used in the hog-tying strangulation of my sister mitigate the horrific torture that led to her death?

The killer told police where he hid the rope and for that he now lives in Solano prison.  He was given a life sentence. At the time, I wanted both killers to suffer the same fate my sisters had, and to endure the physical and psychological terror that comes from knowing someone is ending your life.

Despite its liberal reputation, California has the unfortunate distinction of having the nation’s largest death row, housing 20 percent of all such inmates in the U.S. Los Angeles County alone has the most death row convicts, more than the entire state of Texas.

However, the reality of the death penalty in California is different from the hype. In the 33 years since its reinstatement, the state has executed 13 people or 1 percent of its death row population.

Some begrudge the price of providing inmates with “three hots and a cot.” But the cost of incarceration is relatively cheap compared with the alternative of having criminals on the streets or the cost of a lengthy appeals process.

We can’t have it both ways: lock them up and then complain about the cost of incarceration. Since the state re-established the death penalty in 1978, it has spent $4 billion on death penalty cases.

This money could be better spent on law enforcement and in preventive measures, such as an improved domestic violence detection and treatment. And the cost does not factor in the lives of those executed and later found to be innocent.

Unlike most people, for me the death penalty doesn’t come from a particular political bent, but a selfish one. The death penalty is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue, but a family one. It’s the victim’s family who are forced to relive the loss of their loved one each time the case is revisited in court.

A life sentence and the death penalty aren’t much different for the victim’s family. In both cases, the family has to relive the nightmare each time the killer gets another day in court, whether on appeal or a bid for parole.

The toll this process takes on a family member’s physical and mental health is incalculable. For years I lived with the corrosive anger of wanting revenge, before realizing I was allowing myself to continue to be victimized.

Knowing the killer is off the streets and not able to harm another was enough for me to put the trauma and pain of losing a sister into its proper perspective and move forward in life.

Not all murders are created equal, but those convicted of murder as heinous as Irene’s, the murders that would otherwise merit the death penalty, should be sentenced to prison with absolutely no possibility of parole, unless irrefutable evidence surfaces warranting a new trial.

Initially given 25 years to life, Irene’s killer is coming up for parole for the second time this December. He declined his first parole hearing, thinking he had a better chance at his second one.

He spent the last three years performing the tasks he was supposed to do all along to show the parole board that he has changed. One task was to write a letter of apology to the victim’s family.

It took him a staggering 24 years to send a letter, and it was full of excuses rather than remorse for what he’d done. I will be there at his parole hearing to remind him and the board of what he did to my sister, and the grave danger he poses to other, unsuspecting women.

In November, my vote will be to have California join the other 17 states that have already banned the death penalty. Firm and fair incarceration for those convicted is what I seek.

I want the resources now spent on the lengthy death penalty appeals process used to reduce the chances that other Californians will suffer as Irene did, and, ultimately, as my family did.

I speak only for myself, but my hope is that when you’re voting on this measure you will consider the families who have had to repeatedly relive the agony of losing their loved one and vote to end the California death penalty.

 

Loretta Carrico Russell lives in Round Montain

South Dakota Supreme Court to hear arguments in appeal by death-row inmate Rodney Berget


October1, 2012 http://www.therepublic.com

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A lawyer for a man who pleaded guilty to killing a prison guard and was sentenced to death earlier this year is appealing the sentence to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Monday in the case of 50-year-old Rodney Berget. Berget pleaded guilty to killing guard Ronald Johnson on his 63rd birthday in April 2011 at the state penitentiary during a botched prison escape. A judge sentenced Berget to die by lethal injection. But Berget’s lawyer is now appealing the sentence.

A second inmate involved in the escape attempt, 50-year-old Eric Robert, is scheduled to die by lethal injection during the week of Oct. 14. A third inmate was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement.

Executions Rarely Reason for Leaving Pa. Death Row


September 27, 2012 http://www.wetmtv.com

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Two-hundred Pennsylvania convicts are sentenced to die, but they’re less likely to be executed than to be removed from death row for other reasons. State Corrections Department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton, who has kept records on death-row prisoners since 1985, said Wednesday 184 inmates have left death row in that time.

The largest proportion – 133 inmateswere resentenced to life imprisonment. That’s what condemned killer Terrance Williams is seeking in court and from the governor as Williams’ Oct. 3 execution date draws near.

McNaughton says 12 other former death-row inmates were resentenced to other penalties and nine death sentences were vacated.

Twenty-four death-row inmates died of natural causes, three committed suicide and three were executed.

The US Is Still Executing People For Crimes Committed As Teens


September 25, 2012 http://www.eurasiareview.com

The United States never misses an opportunity to castigate other countries for “uncivilized” behavior, and certainly there is enough of that to go around almost anywhere you look in the world. But there’s plenty of it here in the U.S. too.

Just consider the case of Terry Williams.

Williams, a 47-year-old black man, has spent almost 30 years on Pennsylvania’s crowded death row while lawyers sought appealed his death penalty for two murders committed back when he was a 17 and 18-year old boy. Now he’s about to be killed by the state for those crimes.

At the time he was tried and convicted, although it was known to prosecutors that his two victims were adult men who had forcibly raped Williams when he was as young as 13, and that he had been a victim of sexual abuse since he was six, the jury was not informed about any of this. In recent years, a number of the 12 jurors who originally convicted him and sentenced the teenager to death have now said that had they known about the abuse he suffered — particularly at the hands of the two men he later killed — they would have decided the case differently, and certainly would not have voted for the death penalty. Even the wife of one of his victims has pleaded with the state to spare him.

Nevertheless, the state’s governor, Tom Corbett, a hard-on-crime Republican who, prior to being elected to the state’s top post, served as attorney general, making him the state’s top lawyer, had no hesitation in signing his death warrant earlier this month, with an Oct. 3 execution date.

The irony is that Pennsylvania has just gone through a huge ugly scandal involving the football program at its largest public university, Pennsylvania State University, where the defensive coach on the school’s nationally recognized football team, Jerry Sandusky, was found to have been raping dozens of young boys over a period of some 20 years, at least part of that time with the knowledge of the school’s athletic director and top school officials, who acted to cover up his crimes. Sandusky was tried and found guilty of multiple rapes, and could be sentenced to life in prison.

There are credible allegations that Corbett, as attorney general, ignored charges and evidence forwarded to his office that Sandusky was raping and molesting young boys at Penn State.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, abolished execution for people convicted of murder who were 17 or younger at the time they committed their crime. At the time of that decision there were more than 70 people on the nation’s death rows who had committed their capital crimes while aged 16 or 17. Interestingly, the court majority cited “international opinion” in partial explanation for its decision. Between 1990 and 2007, there were only seven countries that had executed someone under 18: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China. By 2007, even those nations had put a halt to such executions.

Williams’ case stands apart, because one of his two murders was perpetrated after he had turned 18. But the fact of his repeated abuse at the hands of both of his victims, plus his long history of sexual abuse as a child, complicates the picture, painting him clearly as a victim himself.

In most “civilized” countries, this history of abuse would be a clear mitigating factor in determining the appropriate punishment for his crimes, and perhaps even his guilt or innocence.

Meanwhile, while no one will again be executed in the US for a murder committed under the age of 18, those who were facing death before the Supreme Court’s decision merely had their sentences converted to life in prison without possibility of parole, which many critics argue is perhaps worse than death, and which certainly is “cruel and unusual,” particularly given modern neurological research showing that the brain and personality is still not even fully developed at the age of 18, or even 21.

In Pennsylvania alone — a state where the concepts of mercy, compassion and understanding appear to be uniquely in short supply –there are an astonishing 470 prisoners currently serving prison terms of life-without-chance-of-parole who committed their crimes as children. Nationwide, the figure is close to 2600. Some of these people committed their crimes when they were as young as 14. Many, we know, had suffered circumstances of neglect or abuse similar to what Terry Williams endured as a child, but had shoddy defense attorneys who failed to bring such evidence to the attention of the court and the jury, or had prosecutors who deliberately and illegally hid that evidence.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in one such case — that of a woman named Trina Garnett, who was convicted of setting a house fire at the age of 14 which killed two young boys — that such permanent sentences were unconstitutional. Garnett, a low-IQ girl with diagnosed mental problems, was serving a life sentence and was 50 at the time that the court, in another 5-4 decision, granted her the right to a new sentencing hearing. All such prisoners sentenced to life in prison as children will now at least have a chance for a re-sentencing hearing.

It’s a small step towards civilized behavior in the nation that today has the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars of any country in the world.

CALIFORNIA – Death Row inmates oppose Prop. 34


September 24, 2012 http://www.sfgate.com

Like other state prisoners, the 725 inmates on California’s Death Row can’t vote. But if they could, there’s evidence that most of them would vote against a November ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty.

It’s not that they want to die, attorney Robert Bryan said. They just want to hang on to the possibility of proving that they’re innocent, or at least that they were wrongly convicted. That would require state funding for lawyers and investigators – funding that Proposition 34 would eliminate for many Death Row inmates after the first round of appeals.

Bryan has represented several condemned prisoners in California as well as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical activist and commentator whose death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman was recently reduced to life in prison. The attorney said California inmates have told him they’d prefer the current law, with its prospect of lethal injection, to one that would reduce their appellate rights.

“Many of them say, ‘I’d rather gamble and have the death penalty dangling there but be able to fight to right a wrong,’ ” Bryan said.

Or, as Death Row inmate Correll Thomas put it in a recent newspaper essay, if Prop. 34 passes, “the courthouse doors will be slammed forever.

Added legal rights

The seeming paradox reflects the tangled legal procedures surrounding capital punishment and the state’s efforts to guard against wrongful convictions and executions by providing additional rights to the condemned.

All criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer have a right to legal representation, at state expense, for their trial and appeal. But only those sentenced to death are guaranteed a state-funded legal team for the post-appellate proceedings known as habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus allows inmates to challenge their convictions or sentence for reasons outside the trial record – typically, incompetent legal representation, misconduct by a judge or juror, or newly discovered evidence. Such challenges are reviewed by both state and federal courts.

For condemned prisoners, it often represents their best chance to stave off execution by presenting their claims to federal judges, who are appointed for life, rather than elected state judges. A ruling that leads to their acquittal, or even a finding of innocence, is also more likely in habeas corpus than in the earlier direct appeal.

Life without parole

Prop. 34, on the Nov. 6 ballot, would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. Death Row inmates would have their sentences reduced to life – and, as a consequence, lose access to state-funded lawyers for habeas corpus, except for those who have already filed their claims.

They would have to file them on their own, or with volunteer lawyers. A judge who finds strong evidence of innocence could order the state to pay the inmate’s legal costs for further proceedings.

More than 300 inmates would be affected by the measure’s passage, said Bryan, who as a state-appointed habeas corpus lawyer won a state Supreme Court ruling last month overturning a death sentence for a double murder in San Jose.

Same legal footing

Attorney Natasha Minsker, the Yes on 34 campaign manager, said the initiative would place now-condemned inmates “in the same position as every prisoner convicted of a serious felony in California,” with the same right to go to court.

They would no longer automatically get state-funded lawyers for habeas corpus claims, Minsker said. The main purpose of those lawyers now is “to save a person’s life” from a wrongful execution, but that task would disappear if Prop. 34 passed, she said.

No one has polled Death Row inmates on Prop. 34. But an organization called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty sent letters to 220 condemned prisoners in California and received about 50 replies, all but three of them against the ballot measure, said Lily Mae Hughes, the group’s director.

The reasons were described in commentaries carried in June by San Francisco’s BayView newspaper from three condemned prisoners, two of them opposing Prop. 34.

“We are in fact taking a step backward in our ability to challenge our convictions,” said Kevin Cooper, convicted of murdering four people, including two children, in San Bernardino County after his escape from prison in 1983. State and federal courts have upheld his death sentence, although five federal judges declared in a dissenting opinion two years ago that they believed he might be innocent.

Thomas, whose death sentence for the fatal shooting of a San Diego motorist was upheld by the state Supreme Court last year, said fellow inmates agree with him that life without parole is “another death penalty.”

Donald Ray Young, one of two brothers sentenced to death for the 1995 murders of five people at a bar in Tulare – crimes they deny committing – supported Prop. 34.

“Let us choose the ballot box,” he wrote, “or the pine box will choose us.”