Marin and the Death Penalty

HERE’S A NEWS item relating to Marin County: Governor Jerry Brown is requesting $3.2 million to convert 97 existing cells to safely house death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Yes, this is an extension of San Quentin’s death row.

By state law, San Quentin is the only prison in California where executions can take place and, while its death row’s maximum capacity is 715, currently there are 746 condemned murders awaiting execution — with 20 more expected to arrive every year for the foreseeable future. Obviously, there’s a logjam. Regardless, in 2012, Californians voted to retain the death penalty, 52 percent to 48 percent. Hopefully, the issue will reappear on the 2016 ballot and this time the death penalty can be repealed.

Briefly, here is the history of capital punishment in California: in the mid-1800s, firing squads at a variety of locations would fatally shoot convicted killers. But inaccurate riflemen caused slow and painful deaths via loss of blood. So death by hanging was adopted, and on March 3, 1893, at San Quentin, Jose Gabriel was hanged for committing a murder. Theoretically, death by hanging is quick and painless, provided the convicted person’s neck is instantly snapped. But if the noose is too short, death by strangulation is slow and painful, and if the rope is too long, decapitation could result. So, in the 1920s, the electric chair was introduced as a means of killing convicted killers.

However, by the 1940s, that method had electrically set several condemned prisoners’ hair and scalp on fire before they died. Therefore, gas chambers using cyanide became the preferred method of execution. And soon after World War II, Sam Shockley and Edgar Thompson were gassed to death at San Quentin.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all state death penalties as imposed were “cruel and unusual punishment,” therefore unconstitutional, and executions in California ceased. But five years later, after the court had partially reversed itself, voters approved Prop. 17 and capital punishment in California was reintroduced. Between then and now, 13 condemned murderers have been executed, while 56 have died of old age or suicide.

In 1994, lethal injection replaced lethal gas as San Quentin’s standard method of execution, and in 1996, William Bonin was the first in California to die that way, followed by 10 more men over the next decade. In 2006, a U.S. District Court judge halted a lethal injection over concerns that improper application of the three-drug protocol would amount to cruel and unusual punishment by causing intense pain. As a result, by court order only licensed medical professionals were legally permitted to perform executions — but the state was unable to find doctors willing to do them. So a de facto moratorium on capital punishment has been in effect in California for the past nine years.

It should also be noted that the three drugs in question are no longer sufficiently available in the United States because the manufacturers refuse to supply them for the killing of humans. Consequently, California has turned to a British source for an adequate supply of one of the drugs, sodium thiopental, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nationwide database. However, in the current scenario our state would essentially need to adopt a one-drug procedure for executions. Three years ago, Governor Brown called for such a change, but the method cannot be implemented until tests prove it is suitable for executing convicted murderers without “excruciating pain.”

In 2011, a reputable study concluded that since 1978, when California voters said yes to capital punishment, the system has cost taxpayers $4 billion, not including the governor’s recent request for $3.2 million. Thus, capital punishment is not only barbaric, it’s inherently dysfunctional. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.