Calif. death-row suicide highlights long delays

Appealing the death penalty in California can take 20 years, meaning that condemned prisoners are more likely to die behind bars of natural causes than be executed. California voters will get an chance in November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty. Enlarge photo

Eric Risberg/Associated Press file photo

Appealing the death penalty in California can take 20 years, meaning that condemned prisoners are more likely to die behind bars of natural causes than be executed. California voters will get an chance in November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty.

SAN FRANCISCO – When James Lee Crummel hanged himself in his San Quentin Prison cell last month, he had been living on Death Row for almost eight years – and he was still years away from facing the executioner.

California’s automatic death penalty appeals take so long that the state’s 723 condemned inmates are more likely to die of old age and infirmities – or kill themselves – than be executed.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, California has executed 13 inmates, and none since 2006. But 20 have committed suicide, including Crummel, who abducted, sexually abused and killed a 13-year-old boy on his way to school in 1979. Another 57 inmates have died of natural causes. The ponderous pace of this process has helped make the state’s death row the most populous in the nation, and it has generated critics from all quarters.

Victim-rights groups say the delays amount to justice denied. Death-penalty opponents say the process, like execution itself, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

And now the state’s voters will get an opportunity this November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty, which critics deride as an inefficient and expensive system for a financially troubled state.

It took the Supreme Court four years to appoint Crummel a public defender, and it took his attorney almost that long to file his opening brief after several time extensions. Crummel’s appeal was expected to consume a few more years before the high court decided the case.

While most condemned inmates welcome legal delays, even those seeking a speedy resolution are stymied.

Scott Peterson, who was sentenced to death seven years ago for murdering his pregnant wife Laci, is attempting to get his case before the Supreme Court as soon as possible, because he says he was wrongly convicted.

Peterson’s parents hired a top-notch private appellate lawyer after sentencing, while other Death Row inmates wait an average of five years each for appointment of taxpayer-funded public defenders.

“We are moving at lightning speed compared to most automatic appeals,” said Peterson’s attorney Cliff Gardner. “He wants to establish his innocence.”

The slow wheels of death penalty appeals, and the billions of dollars spent on them through the years, are making converts of some of capital punishment’s biggest backers, including the author of a 1978 ballot measure that expanded the types of crimes eligible for capital punishment in the state.

Retired prosecutor Donald Heller, who wrote the 1978 proposition, and Ron Briggs, the initiative’s campaign manager who now serves on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, say they support abolition in California because the system is too costly and hardly anyone is being put to death.

“We’d thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers,” Briggs said in a statement. “Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers.