California’s death row grows as death sentences decline nationwide

Los Angeles County sent more people to death row this year than Texas, Florida or any other state in the nation, condemning 13 convicted murderers -- the highest number in a decade, according to a Times review of justice statistics.

The increase comes as a national report projects that the number of death sentences issued across the country this year will reach its lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Los Angeles County helped California buck that trend, boosting the state’s death sentences from 20 last year to 29 so far this year, more than a quarter of the nationwide total of 106, according to a report released Friday by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. The center attributed the national decline to deepening concerns about the costs of capital punishment and the possibility of wrongful convictions.

California’s increase occurred despite legal challenges that have left the state’s lethal injection chamber idle for the last four years. Any resumption of executions is still at least a year off, experts said. The 2009 capital sentences have helped push the state’s condemned population to 697, the nation’s largest by far.

“It really goes against all of the trends we’ve seen across the country, where death sentences are becoming less and less common and are imposed more selectively,” said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which opposes capital punishment.

California’s capital punishment system has drawn widespread criticism as the most cost-inefficient in the country, having executed only 13 people in more than 30 years.

Los Angeles County sent as many defendants to death row in 2009 as in the previous three years combined. Until this year, the county had experienced a marked drop in death sentences since reaching a high during the late-1990s, when double-digit figures were the norm.

The trend has caused concern among defense attorneys who handle death cases. Lawyers suggested that some judges have played a role by placing strict limits on the time attorneys get to question prospective jurors about their attitudes toward the death penalty. Others said they believe jurors have become more cynical about evidence of a defendant’s abusive childhood.

“There is less tolerance, less understanding from more and more jurors,” said Robert Schwartz, a veteran defense lawyer.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley cautioned against reading too much into this year’s figures, saying the rise could be a fluke of courtroom scheduling. Capital cases typically take years to wind through the courts before reaching a jury.

Timothy McGhee, for example, a shot-caller for a notorious gang in northeast Los Angeles, was charged with several slayings in 2003. It took four years before McGhee went to trial. A jury found him guilty of three murders and the attempted murder of two police officers, but deadlocked on whether McGhee should be executed. Last year, a second jury voted for death. McGhee was sentenced in January.

L.A. County prosecutors have been seeking death in fewer cases than they did a decade ago, but the percentage resulting in death verdicts has grown, records show.

“We started being more selective and more rigorous in our review,” Cooley said. “It’s certainly not being more aggressive.”

The high cost of prosecuting capital cases, he said, is only one factor that the office weighs in deciding when to seek death.

“Oftentimes, a crime is so horrific that . . . you’re not going to need very much more than proof beyond a reasonable doubt” to get a capital conviction, Cooley said. “I think that society in general wants to keep that option for some people. Maybe less people, but some people.”

Among the new arrivals at San Quentin’s death row this year were Reyon Ingram and Calvin Dennis, convicted of killing a father and son as part of a robbery in Compton in 2006. The men had robbed Derrick Kellum Sr. of his wallet, then lured him to the scene of his death by offering to return it. Kellum was shot nine times. His 10-year-old son was also shot.

Ruben Becerrada of Arleta was sentenced to death for the 2000 stabbing and strangulation of his 22-year-old girlfriend, Maria Arevalo, after she reported to authorities that he had previously raped her. Prosecutors said he punched and kicked her on a street near his home before abducting her. Her body was discovered in the trunk of her abandoned car.

Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit database maintained by capital punishment opponents, attributed California’s continued pursuit of death sentences to a lack of public debate about the economics of the policy, which he said costs the state $137 million a year more than if the defendants were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“It seems particularly strange in California because that is a state where expenses are very high and the return in terms of executions is low,” Dieter said.

While sentences declined throughout the country this year, executions rose with 52 men put to death, up from 37 last year. Death penalty states observed a de facto moratorium in early 2008 while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures in Kentucky.

Texas, which has the nation’s most active death chamber, executed 24 men this year. The state issued only nine new death sentences, though, down dramatically from the average of 34 annually in the 1990s, according to the year-end report.

Neither the Texas attorney general’s office nor the Texas District and County Attorneys Assn. monitors capital cases statewide, said association spokeswoman Sarah Wolf.

If the figures cited in Dieter’s 2009 report are accurate, she said, they might reflect growing concerns about the costs of prosecuting capital cases, but not a decline in Texans’ support for keeping the ultimate sentence an option.

“There is still overwhelming support for the death penalty in Texas,” Wolf said. “If we get someone who commits a horrific crime, people are just not going to put up with that here.”

Currently, Texas has 342 people on death row.

“We don’t really let them stack up here, like in California,” Wolf said.

Executions have been on hold in California while corrections and justice officials revamp the three-drug procedure used to execute condemned inmates, a review fraught with bureaucracy and legal challenges expected to delay executions for at least another year and probably longer.

San Quentin State Prison’s death row now houses more than a fifth of the 3,279 awaiting execution across the country.