Lawrence Bittaker flipped on the light, got off his cot and came to the steel mesh door of his cell, at the end of a tier on San Quentin’s death row.
“Surprisingly good, really,” he said, when I asked how his health was. “The new medical program pretty well takes care of folks.”
At 75, his thinning hair is gray, as is his scraggly mustache. He is slight, not very tall, and wore a white T-shirt and shorts. He talked softly with a slight twang, while others around him, the murderers and the officers, called out in the cacophony that is the sound of death row.
Bittaker is one of 726 condemned men at San Quentin. They’re housed on various tiers and cellblocks, and in an immaculate new psychiatric ward for 40 of the most floridly insane murderers. As voters prepare to decide Proposition 62 to abolish capital punishment and Proposition 66 intended to speed it up, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation led a tour of this state’s death row last week.
There are gang members and child killers. Some killed during robberies or drug deals, or to silence witnesses, or for some bizarre compulsion. At a table in an exercise yard for the inmates who have shown they won’t attack one another, a serial killer played checkers with another inmate.
Donald Debose, 39, evidently less well-behaved, took a break from doing pull-ups alone in a cage, and explained how death row is akin to slavery. He is a Crip, who was convicted of robbing a woman of her winnings at a Hollywood Park card room in 1997, shooting her five times, stuffing her in a car trunk and lighting it ablaze. In the cage directly across from Debose, an Aryan, his torso tattooed with swastikas and other racist insignia, wore shorts and did pull-ups alone in his cage.
“None of us are ever going home,” the Aryan said.
Richard Allen Davis is here for abducting 12-year-old Polly Klaas from a slumber party in Petaluma and murdering her in 1993. So is Douglas Clark, the Sunset Strip Killer, sentenced to death in 1983 for six murders, though he is suspected of many more. He asked me about a buddy of mine, Frank Candida, a reporter who covered his trial for the old Herald Examiner. Frank died young, 28 years ago. Clark is 68.
Scott Peterson is here for murdering Laci Peterson, his pregnant wife, in 2002. His cell is on North Seg, the original death row, which houses 60 of the most well-behaved prisoners. They have the privilege of being able to leave their cells during the day, and freely mingle on the cellblock. There’s a waiting list to get on it. A Mickey Mouse clock hangs on the wall on the officers’ side of the bars. “The happiest place on Earth,” is written beneath it.
Talk with the inmates now, and they seem so normal. They aren’t, and certainly weren’t when they committed their hideous crimes, least of all Lawrence Bittaker. Our species does not spawn individuals who are more depraved that Bittaker.
To say he murdered five girls, ages 13 through 18, doesn’t capture the nature of his crimes. He opened a macabre tool kit of torture that included an ice pick, screw driver, vise grips and pliers. He tape-recorded screams. Pliers became his signature, so much so that he used to sign his autograph, Pliers Bittaker.
Now, Bittaker draws pop-up greeting cards. “Come visit scenic California,” one reads. “Climb the rugged mountains. Fish the rivers. Ride the surf.” Open it up, and out pops a Great White. “And feed the sharks.”
Bittaker was sentenced to death on March 24, 1981. For two years after Bittaker’s trial, Stephen R. Kay, the retired Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted him, had recurring nightmares: “I would hear the girls screaming, and I was running to get to them. Too late.” He still pictures what Bittaker did with the tools of his deadly trade.
On June 22, 1989, the California Supreme Court affirmed Bittaker’s death sentence by a 7-0 vote. The late Justice Allen Broussard, a Jerry Brown appointee, wrote the opinion, citing Bittaker’s “astonishing cruelty.”
I started writing about the death penalty in 1984, and witnessed the execution by lethal gas of Robert Alton Harris in April 1992. Back then, inmates and attorneys believed California would start regularly putting people to death. It didn’t happen, and won’t.
Too many Californians are opposed or, like me, ambivalent. No one wants to make a mistake, so courts and legislators build in protections. We spend huge sums to house death row inmates in single cells, on their security, and on their appeals.
“Would we feel better if we kill people who do such heinous crimes? Sure,” said Bill Zimmerman, the strategist for Proposition 62, to abolish capital punishment. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the state spends $150 million a year on the death penalty system. Spread over the decades, Zimmerman estimates California has spent $5 billion on our faux death penalty system. “What could we have done with that $5 billion to make us safer?”
California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 when a judge struck down the state’s lethal injection procedure. A decade later, the state is slow-walking the replacement protocol.
Proposition 66, funded primarily by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and other law enforcement unions, promises to streamline the state appeals process. Perhaps it would, though courts would have to sort it out.
And Proposition 66 would have no impact on the federal courts, where many death penalty appeals languish. Defense attorneys and prosecutors briefed Bittaker’s federal habeas corpus appeal nine years ago. It sits before Terry Hatter, a federal judge who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter and ceased hearing cases full time in 2005.
“I happened to have got lucky and got one of the most liberal judges,” Bittaker told me. “They don’t seem to be in any hurry. I’m not either, since I don’t have much coming. It wasn’t exactly a fair trial. But I deserve to be here so I can’t complain.”
People who vote to end the charade – I probably will be among them – need to do so with clear eyes. No doubt, many death row inmates received less than perfect trials. But they are on death row for good reason. If voters approve Proposition 62, the killers still would spend their lives in prison, sentenced to life without parole.
Bittaker’s accomplice, a murder-rapist named Roy Norris, is serving a life sentence at R.J. Donovan State Prison outside San Diego. He receives no special notoriety or accommodation. He and Bittaker both will die in prison. But at what cost?