SACRAMENTO — California had the largest Death Row population of any state, but just nine executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.
“Our attorneys are frustrated by the pace. Victims throughout the state are incredibly frustrated by the pace,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. “There’s no reason for these cases to take 20 years.”
However, he and death penalty opponents said the pace reflects a deliberate approach that has helped protect California from the sort of highly publicized convictions of innocents that prompted Illinois to declare a moratorium and raised fairness questions in Texas.
“It’s a little bloodthirsty, it seems to me, to suggest that we’re killing people too slowly,” said actor Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus.
He and other opponents questioned the racial fairness of the death penalty in California and across the nation, along with other regional inequities.
In California, 349 of those awaiting execution were white and 215 black at the end of 2000. Twelve women and 114 Hispanics were on Death Row (the two sets of numbers overlap).
California has the most inmates awaiting execution — 586 at the end of 2000 — mainly because of its massive population, said Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor who has studied California prisons for more than 20 years.
The state had eight executions from 1977 through 2000, the period covered by the Justice Department report, and added a ninth this year with the execution of Robert Lee Massie.
California’s pace of executions is “quite typical of northern industrial states with big Death Rows,” Zimring said. “Obviously governments and judges are more ambivalent about executions in northern industrial states than they are in the South. ... It’s a startling difference.”
Also slowing down executions in California are a higher concentration of federal judges reluctant to support the death penalty, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who thinks judges are too cautious.
Death penalty appellate attorney Aundre Herron countered that federal judges in particular serve as a vital check on overzealous prosecutors.
“Once these cases are really closely looked at, they don’t pass constitutional muster,” said Herron, who sits on the boards of Death Penalty Focus and the American Civil Liberties Union.
California’s high Death Row population comes, in part, because of hard-line lawmakers and prosecutors, she said. “Almost every murder is death-eligible in this state,” and most prosecutors are reluctant not to seek executions when they can.