California Forum

Missing the other side of capital punishment: innocent people wrongly convicted

Lawrence Bittaker is a condemned serial killer who was sentenced to death after he killed and tortured five teenage girls in 1979.
Lawrence Bittaker is a condemned serial killer who was sentenced to death after he killed and tortured five teenage girls in 1979.

I realize that when writing a piece about California’s death row it’s much more interesting to focus on an inmate whose crimes are the stuff of horror movies. But it seems that in a story written by a columnist who describes himself as “ambivalent” about capital punishment, it would be edifying to also look at those on death row whose guilt is questionable, or whose crimes were not horrendous but occurred in the wrong county, or whose conviction was the result of a woefully inadequate defense attorney. (“A macabre and failed system of justice”; Forum, Aug. 21)

Dan Morain writes that, “No doubt, many death row inmates received less than perfect trials. But they are on death row for good reason.” The facts show otherwise. Since 1973, 156 innocent people have been exonerated and freed from death rows around the country. And, as U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski once said, “For every exonerated convict, there may be dozens who are innocent but cannot prove it.”

Morain focused on Lawrence Bittaker in his column, a poster boy for supporters of the death penalty. He could just as easily have focused on Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose conviction was so controversial his supporters include a former FBI investigator of violent crimes, the American Bar Association, some of the jurors who convicted him, and a Louisiana prosecutor who wrongly convicted a man in a similar case years ago.

Finally, Morain has been a reporter in California for a long time. Doesn’t he find it strange that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is now giving reporters regular tours of death row? When I was a reporter in the ’90s, I visited San Quentin three times, but death row was always completely off limits. I was at San Quentin when Mother Teresa visited, and we weren’t allowed to accompany her to death row because “it was too dangerous.”

It strikes me as more than coincidence that with Proposition 62 on the November ballot, San Quentin’s death row is now open to the media. What better way to make an argument for the need for the death penalty than to introduce the press to the men whose crimes give people nightmares? And who better to have as your messenger than the “objective” media? Wasn’t there at least part of him that suspected he was being used?

Mary C. DeLucco of Petaluma is a former television reporter, writer and producer in the Bay Area. She now works as a freelance writer and producer in San Francisco.