The tattoo on Luis Rodriguez’s chest was said to look like a flower with petals, until you looked closer. It was, in reality, a revolver aimed straight at you.
Rodriguez, the sociopathic killer, was one argument for the death penalty. His tortured case was an argument for why it must end.
Rodriguez crosses my mind each time I drive past the sign at the eastbound entrance of the Yolo Causeway that honors Officers William M. Freeman and Roy P. Blecher, the highway patrol officers Rodriguez murdered on an early foggy morning, three days before Christmas in 1978.
I first interviewed Rodriquez in 1989 when I was writing about life on San Quentin’s death row. “It’s kind of like you’re dead. You just haven’t realized it yet,” Rodriguez told me in 1989.
Not much had changed last week as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer dissented when the other justices decided against reviewing a California death penalty case. The case involved Richard Boyer, sentenced to death in 1984 for stabbing to death an elderly couple in Fullerton, after smoking PCP, getting drunk on whiskey and snorting cocaine.
“Put simply, California’s costly administration of the death penalty likely embodies three fundamental defects,” Breyer wrote, citing unreliability, arbitrariness and “unconscionably long delays.”
Attorney General Kamala Harris reiterated her opposition to the death penalty last week, saying in an interview with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that the death penalty is flawed, dysfunctional and expensive.
During her six years in office, however, Harris has defended capital punishment, declining to side with the defense lawyers who argue for its abolition. In her view, there’s a limit to what lawyers and judges can or should do.
“I think ultimately, the voters of California are going to make the decision,” Harris said.
Voters will get their say in November. Death penalty advocates are qualifying an initiative intended to speed up executions. Proponents have submitted 601,000 signatures, more than enough to qualify an initiative to abolish it.
If anything, Rodriguez will be a footnote in that campaign. But his case illustrates the futility of the system, and society’s collective ambivalence.
When I met Rodriguez, there were 259 condemned men at San Quentin. Now there are 748, and only 13 men have been executed at San Quentin since 1992. No one has been executed in California since 2006. Seventy have died of natural causes, 25 of suicide, and eight of other causes including drug overdoses.
In November 1978, California voters approved a death penalty initiative by a 71-29 percent margin. A month later, Rodriguez picked up a hitchhiker, Margaret Klaess, who had been using heroin and selling herself. He started pimping her out.
The tule fog was thick at 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 22, when Officers Freeman and Blecher pulled them over in West Sacramento. Rodriguez stepped out of the car. Klaess stayed behind. A sheriff’s deputy was nearby, heard gunfire and sped to the scene, to discover two officers dead, one of them handcuffed.
Police arrested Rodriguez and Klaess two days later. At the trial, in Redwood City, police sold T-shirts depicting a hangman’s noose and slogan, “Adios Louis.” Klaess saved herself by testifying, saying one of the wounded officers cried out: “ ‘Help me. God, help me. Somebody help me.’ ” She didn’t.
In October 1986, the California Supreme Court upheld Rodriguez’s conviction but in a 4-3 decision directed the trial judge, Joseph Karesh, to give “prompt consideration” to whether the death sentence was appropriate. The justices clearly expected Karesh to act quickly. A few weeks later, voters, believing the court had blocked the death penalty repeatedly, ousted three justices appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Five years later, in 1991, Karesh, then 82, was wracked by doubt. He called Rodriguez’s case “the most troubling” one he had handled in his 30 years on the bench. The judge did not believe Klaess, and was skeptical that one man could have disarmed and shot the two CHP officers. Citing “continually growing doubts” about Rodriguez’s guilt, Karesh cut his sentence to life in prison without parole.
Karesh discounted evidence including a shoe print found at the scene that matched Rodriguez’s, Rodriguez’s fake driver’s license found at the scene and testimony by five witnesses who said Rodriguez vowed to kill any cop who tried to arrest him.
Prosecutors appealed Karesh’s ruling. But in 1993, the California Supreme Court, by then controlled by more conservative justices appointed by Republican governors, affirmed Karesh’s decision. Prison authorities moved Rodriguez to Pelican Bay state prison in Del Norte County, to Kern Valley State Prison, and finally to R.J. Donovan outside San Diego.
He never reformed in prison. A California Department of Corrections spokeswoman said he was disciplined for fighting, getting tattoos, making pruno and possessing a weapon, marijuana and heroin. He was fighting and resisting guards as recently as last year.
He was a regular litigant, accusing officers in one recent suit of shooting him in retaliation because he had filed a grievance against them. He even sued the appellate lawyer who had persuaded Karesh to overturn his death sentence – for malpractice, no less.
On April 7, Rodriguez collapsed on an exercise yard at Donovan, and died April 14, at age 60. No one should have shed a tear. His death came sooner than most of the men who were on death row when we met. He deserved to die in prison, forgotten by all but a few. His death by natural causes rather than a needle reflects the ambivalence Californians have toward the death penalty and our inability to carry it out. Soon enough, we’ll see whether voters put it out of its misery.