Dead man waiting

Williams is a Times staff writer.

Vanessa Iberri and Kelly Cartier noticed the balding man in the red Datsun pickup as he drove past them into the Blue Jay Campground of Cleveland National Forest. The 12-year-old girls were leaving the campground ahead of Vanessa’s mother, heading for a creek-side picnic spot where they all planned to eat lunch.

The truck turned around, passed the girls again and disappeared around a bend of the dirt road. The driver, Thomas Francis Edwards, an expert marksman who worked at a shooting range, pulled over and waited.

“Hey, girls!” Edwards yelled from the cab when the hikers caught up with his parked pickup. When they turned to look, Edwards, who didn’t know either girl, leveled a .22 Ruger automatic pistol at Vanessa’s forehead and pulled the trigger, striking her between the eyes. His second shot grazed Kelly’s forehead. She had flinched in shock at the first blast, dodging a direct hit.


Vanessa Iberri died two days later. Kelly Cartier survived to testify against Edwards, who was sentenced to death five years and four trials later. It was a frustrated prosecution despite the eyewitness account and solid evidence against Edwards provided by campers who happened upon the grisly scene seconds after the shootings.

It has been 27 years since Vanessa’s death, and ever since that day, her father, Joe, has devoted much of his energy to seeing his daughter’s killer executed.

“People ask me, ‘How do you keep your sanity?’ And I tell them I keep on because I’m fighting for my daughter. She still lives within me,” he said, tapping his heart.

Edwards was convicted of Vanessa’s murder in 1983, and then, after two penalty-phase mistrials, sentenced to death in 1986. Now 65, he is one of 677 prisoners on California’s death row at San Quentin State Prison. The execution chamber has been idle for the last three years, as carpenters have worked on rebuilding it and courts pondered whether the state’s lethal injection procedures pass constitutional muster. For Iberri, the delays have been torturous.

“All these trials I’ve been to, and that guy is still up there on death row with three meals a day and TV and DVDs,” Iberri fumes with a rage that has been fueled anew with each appeal accorded Edwards.

If Vanessa had lived, she would have turned 40 in May. Instead, her life has been reduced to a scrapbook of photos fixing her forever in childhood. One, circa 1980, shows Iberri with Tony Orlando-like hair and mustache, his arm draped over Vanessa’s shoulders as they smile from atop a blanket at the beach. Another captures the girl beaming in a full-length satin gown as a bridesmaid at her cousin’s wedding. In a snapshot taken the night before her murder, Vanessa wears a Mona Lisa half-smile, her long brown hair pushed back from her face by a tortoise-shell headband.

“Every day that you live, you think about all the things other families go through -- birthdays, graduation, college, boyfriends -- for me that’s all gone,” he said of the milestones missing from the album. “I never got to see her get married. I’ll never experience having grandkids.”

The legal drama that has unfolded over nearly three decades is filed in a brown paper grocery sack that lives at the end of the living-room sofa, beneath a knock-off Charles Russell painting and a Navajo dream catcher. A mounted buffalo head stares glassy-eyed from the facing wall across a room crammed with Western artifacts and the quotidian belongings -- TV, magazines, toolbox -- of a life endured rather than lived.

“Vanessa and me, we used to go to a lot of flea markets and garage sales,” Iberri recalled as he pawed through the bag in search of a newspaper article from the most recent ruling in Edwards’ case. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld denial of further review in September.

That’s not the end of the condemned man’s legal recourse, though. He has at least two more court appeals challenging his sentence, another to the governor for clemency and a paralyzed battle over capital punishment on which he can rely to stave off the executioner for another few years.

California’s top legal minds agree that the state’s system for capital punishment is dysfunctional, if not irreparably broken.

“The leading cause of death on California’s death row is old age,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, reiterating an observation he made at the time the state Legislature approved a new $220-million death row at San Quentin. The project to house the state’s death row population, the nation’s largest, has yet to break ground and is now predicted to cost $400 million.

George last year proposed that some death penalty reviews that automatically go to the state high court -- and account for at least a quarter of its workload -- be handled by California courts of appeal. But that would require a constitutional amendment by legislative action or voter initiative, neither of which has happened.

John Van de Kamp, a former Los Angeles County district attorney and state attorney general, chaired the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that this year drafted recommendations to overhaul capital punishment in the state.

“If you want to have a death penalty and make it work, you’re going to have to spend the money,” he said. “It now takes 20 to 25 years from judgment to execution -- and growing.”

The impasse persists, Van de Kamp said, because the predominantly conservative advocates of the death penalty don’t want to spend the extra $100 million a year needed to fairly administer the appeals process, while opponents of capital punishment are content with the glacial pace of executions.

The last person executed in California was Clarence Allen in January 2006, and executions have been officially halted since December 2006, when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of San Jose ruled that the state’s lethal injection practices violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The state had called off the execution of San Quentin inmate Michael Morales 10 months earlier after questions were raised about whether some of those executed by the three-drug formula had been fully anesthetized by the first injection before receiving a paralyzing agent and finally a dose of potassium chloride that stops the heart.

A task force convened by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has since reviewed and rewritten the state’s lethal injection protocols, but Fogel has delayed ruling on them until the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco decides a procedural challenge.

A Marin County judge last year concluded that the new protocols break state law because they were drafted without public comment or review by an independent state agency. The appellate court ruling is expected before the end of the year but could then be appealed to the state Supreme Court, said Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Dane R. Gillette.

Iberri would be pleased with Schwarzenegger’s view on when executions could resume if the courts approve the new protocols: “Yesterday,” he said Friday. “Immediately we would start.”

The legal wrangling and delays anger and dumbfound Iberri. He says he is as disgusted with lawmakers and state officials who pay lip service to supporting the death penalty but do nothing to reinstate it as he is with the liberals who fight executions on moral grounds.

A man who stays fit from a physically demanding job as a house painter and daily potions from his juicer, Iberri still goes to gatherings of Parents of Murdered Children. He finds some solace in talking the newly bereaved through the hard parts, the early days when life doesn’t feel worth living. He avoids telling them that for him, it often still doesn’t.

Iberri and Vanessa’s mother, Marsha, were divorced when Edwards, who’d spent 14 years as an adolescent and young adult at a Maryland correctional facility for sociopaths, shot Vanessa and Kelly.

Edwards’ motivation in shooting the girls, who were complete strangers to him, never clearly emerged during his trial. Psychiatric records of a long-hair fetish that contributed to his landing in the Maryland mental facility -- both Vanessa and Kelly wore their hair below the shoulders -- weren’t turned over by the prosecution at the time of the trials.

Iberri can’t talk about Edwards without expletives and describes defense attorneys, death penalty opponents and human rights advocates as “sickening, disgusting scum” who don’t understand what victims’ families go through.

“They’re going beyond the line of duty,” he said of those fighting Edwards’ legal battles. “That’s the problem with this system -- everybody needs a paycheck. It makes me sick.”

Joe Schlesinger, the public defender who has handled Edwards’ case since 1990, blamed prosecution suppression of the Maryland psychiatric records for dragging out the appeals process. It took the defense 17 years to prove the state had withheld evidence of Edwards’ mental condition that provided grounds for further appeals. Although unsuccessful, the appeals added years to the legal process.

“The fact that it takes time is often what allows the truth to come out” in capital cases, said Schlesinger, saying the government was obligated to address every challenge before a life can be taken.

Iberri worked as a cook in a seafood restaurant in Pacific Beach before the murder but lost that job and others because he took off a lot of time to attend legal proceedings and deal with his grief.

“I don’t blame him,” he said of the first restaurant manager to fire him.

Now he supports himself painting houses and trading the Western memorabilia he collects.

He takes the blame for a second failed marriage and other broken relationships over the years. While Vanessa’s mother remarried and had two children, now grown, he said his mission to see Edwards pay for his crime consumed all the passion he had left.

“It’s hard for people to understand,” he said, bemused. “The relationship doesn’t really go anywhere because you’re trying to just get along, go to work, go through the motions. I wish I could wake up one morning and not be me.”

When his mother fell ill in the late 1980s, he moved into her duplex in Oceanside to care for her. She died in 1994, but Iberri never bothered moving back to Pacific Beach.

He makes the occasional call to Cartier, now married with children, keeping up with where Vanessa might be in her life if not for Edwards. For companionship, he has Geronimo, a 56-pound Queensland heeler who has the run of his tiny house.

The refrigerator in his kitchen bears witness to a life both ruined and driven by Edwards’ crime. There’s the McCain-Palin campaign button, because he couldn’t stomach the idea of a liberal in the White House. There’s a newspaper photograph of him sprawled on Vanessa’s grave at Lake Elsinore Cemetery, the modest stone etched in memory of “Our Little Nessy.” There’s a bumper sticker that reads: “Someone I Love Was Murdered.”

Iberri doesn’t know how Vanessa would have stood on the law-and-order issues that shape his political views. She was just a little girl, concerned about starting junior high. Whether she would have been liberal or conservative is just one of the things he never got to know about her.

Iberri used to get vicarious satisfaction joining other victims’ relatives outside the gates of San Quentin during executions.

“When Robert Alton Harris was executed, I had a sign that said: ‘Edwards -- You’re Next,’ ” he recalled of that 1992 execution, when he still believed Edwards’ death, too, was imminent. “I used one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favorite sayings -- ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’ ”

On the subject of mercy, he accords Edwards the same that the killer showed his daughter: none.

“There’s no such thing as closure,” he states with a knowing certainty. “Nothing will bring her back, but there is such a thing as justice being served. Still, 27 years. How can that be?”