Foon Rhee

Is California ready for frequent executions?

A guard keeps watch on the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison last August. In November, California voters approved a ballot measure designed to speed up executions.
A guard keeps watch on the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison last August. In November, California voters approved a ballot measure designed to speed up executions. The Associated Press

There’s one item on my reporting bucket list I never did check off – witnessing an execution. I came very close once, even getting a tour of the gas chamber.

The condemned inmate was David Lawson, convicted of shooting Wayne Shinn in the back of the head during a home break-in. I talked to Shinn’s family and covered Lawson’s news conference when he blamed depression for driving him to murder and urged other mentally ill people to get help. “I desperately want my death to have meaning,” he said. “I am no monster.”

Lawson became a national story because he and TV talk show host Phil Donahue wanted his execution to be the first one televised in the United States. So at first, I was disappointed that another reporter was chosen as a witness.

But after what happened at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., in June 1994, I was relieved. As the cyanide gas rose around him, Lawson yelled, “I’m human, I’m human,” and screamed for five minutes before convulsing, gasping and, finally, going still.

I’ve been thinking about that as I follow the news that Arkansas plans an unusual spree of executions. Originally, it was eight in 11 days, and was to have started with two on Monday. After a frenzy of court rulings, it’s now four executions by the end of the month, barring more legal action. The first inmate was executed Thursday night.

Could it be a preview of what’s to come in California?

Our state has had no executions since 2006, and only 13 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Meanwhile, death row has mushroomed to 749 prisoners, twice as many as any other state.

But last November, voters called for speeding up executions. To completely empty death row, it would take one execution a day, every day, for nearly two years.

Are we really prepared for anything close to that?

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, says he expects one or two executions a month, and doesn’t expect any drop in public support as a result.

I’m not so sure. After executions resumed in 1992, we’ve had them at least two months apart. You can be sure that any plan for frequent executions would be met with legal challenges.

And many Californians are ambivalent about the death penalty. The message from recent statewide measures seems to be: Keep capital punishment on the books, but don’t actually execute anyone.

In November, a bare majority of 51 percent approved Proposition 66, which is supposed to speed executions by streamlining court appeals. (The state Supreme Court put the measure on hold for now after death penalty opponents sued.)

Yet also in November, voters rejected Proposition 62 to repeal the death penalty by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin, slightly more than the 52 percent who opposed a similar measure, Proposition 34, in 2012.

Especially in a few Southern California counties, voters are also electing district attorneys who are putting more people on death row. Even as death sentences have plummeted in recent years nationally, California has had the most, with 14 of 49 death sentences in 2015 and 9 of 32 in 2016.

Public support for the death penalty is persistent despite studies that show it is unfair and racially discriminatory. In California, very similar crimes can lead to a death sentence in one county but not in another. Not to mention the possibility of innocent people being executed; nationwide, more than 150 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

What is happening in Arkansas drew so much attention because it would be so out of the ordinary. The number of executions has been declining across America, and a state hasn’t executed multiple prisoners on the same day for 16 years. Until now, Arkansas had executed only 27 inmates since 1976, nowhere near the leading state, Texas with 542.

No question, the crimes committed by the condemned inmates in Arkansas are horrible, and the families of their victims have been waiting a long time for justice. Jack Jones, on death row for 22 years, was convicted of raping and killing a bookkeeper and beating her daughter. Marcel Williams, sentenced 20 years ago, was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a 22-year-old mother of two. They’re both scheduled for execution on Monday.

But the reason for the sudden rush is that the state’s supply of a lethal injection drug expires at the end of the month. That is a strangely mundane justification on something this momentous.

The drug in question, midazolam, has been linked to several botched executions. The companies that make the others are suing to stop Arkansas from using their drugs, and a judge sided with one on Wednesday.

Because of all the problems with lethal drugs, some states have brought back the gas chamber, electric chair and even the firing squad. California is proposing a new lethal injection protocol that gives the warden at San Quentin the power to choose one of four barbiturates, including two that have never been used before in the U.S.

States moved to lethal drugs in part because it would be more clinical, but it hasn’t always turned out that way. The last time a state sought to execute more than one inmate in a day was in 2014 in Oklahoma. It canceled the second one after the first writhed in pain during the botched lethal injection and was left to die of a heart attack.

In theory, finally carrying out sentences against evil people sounds appealing, especially when you see and hear the loved ones of victims.

But in real life, executions can be gruesome. And no matter how common they might become, it’s killing in our name.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

Death penalty

Executions in selected states since 1976:



















Source: Death Penalty Information Center