Justice in slow motion
On Oct. 31, 1985, Los Angeles Police Det. Thomas C. Williams was shot to death while picking up his 6-year-old son from church school. The 42-year-old had just come from the San Fernando courthouse, where the trial of a robbery suspect he’d apprehended would end the next day.
In the split second before Williams was struck by eight shots from a fully automatic assault pistol, he ordered his son Ryan to duck. By immediately complying, the boy was spared. His father died instantly. In addition to his son, Williams left behind a 17-year-old daughter, Susan, and his wife, Norma.
The killing was proclaimed an assassination by then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, and Daniel Steven Jenkins, the defendant in the robbery case, was charged with Williams’ murder.
Tom Williams and I were fraternity brothers at Cal State Northridge in the days when it was known as San Fernando Valley State College. Years later, when I was a Daily News reporter covering crime, I was careful not to trade on our friendship, but he was helpful when he could be. I would have been covering the Jenkins robbery trial had it not conflicted with a vacation.
I did follow Jenkins’ subsequent legal battles, and sat in the courtroom through much of his murder trial. He was convicted in both the robbery and murder cases. He was also convicted of conspiracy stemming from failed plots to kill the detective before the robbery trial. In 1988, he was sentenced to die for Williams’ murder.
But 22 years later, Jenkins is still on death row at San Quentin State Prison, and he is still appealing his sentence with habeas corpus petitions before both the California Supreme Court and federal district court.
Jenkins’ court-appointed appellate attorney, Michael Snedeker, says 50,000 pages of documents have been generated in the case since his client was charged with Williams’ murder. When Snedeker was appointed to the case, his wife was pregnant with their first son. The boy is now a junior in college. Snedeker predicts the appeals process will run for years to come. And the state pays the tab for all of it.
The Jenkins case illustrates why there have been only 13 executions in California since the death penalty was reinstated 33 years ago. During that time, the death row population has ballooned to 713, by far the largest in the nation. At the opposite extreme, there have been 464 executions in Texas since 1982. Currently, 317 Texas inmates wait on death row.
According to state corrections figures, four times as many inmates have died of natural causes (52) as by execution in California since 1977. In addition, 18 have committed suicide. So that leaves executions stuck in third place among the causes of death on death row.
California is in a bind. On the one hand, death sentences are on the rise (29 last year and 22 so far this year), and the public still supports this ultimate penalty for the most serious crimes. On the other hand, a court has imposed a moratorium on executions pending a review of California’s method of carrying out death sentences.
Moreover, the cost of perpetuating capital punishment in California is a large and growing burden. The annual cost to the state was placed at $125 million in 2008 by the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which was appointed to review the state’s death penalty. Additionally, state officials are scheduled to open bids next month for construction of a larger, higher-security death row on the San Quentin grounds. The estimated cost for the new death row is nearly $400 million.
When Jenkins was first sentenced to death, I regarded it as justified. But recently, after talking to many death penalty experts, I have come to question whether executions in California make sense. Santa Clara Law School professor Gerald F. Uelmen, who served as executive director on the California commission that examined death penalty issues in the state, argues that the cash-strapped state government could reap a huge savings by doing away with the death penalty and reducing the sentences of everyone on death row to life without possibility of parole. Uelmen says the cost would be three times less than it is for holding and paying for the appeals of death row inmates. He says lifers’ appeals are usually decided within a year or two, after which the vast number of them simply spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Law professor Elisabeth Semel, director of the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, suggests another reason for dispensing with capital punishment. The families of murder victims deserve an ending, she says. Semel is well aware of the frustration and disgust experienced by family members as they wait year after year for the killers of their loved ones to exhaust their appeals. In contrast, the faster-paced appeals for those sentenced to life without parole would enable an ending that many families of victims might find more palatable than the death row uncertainty.
If Jenkins’ sentence were converted to life without parole, his appeal would be swiftly resolved, and in all likelihood he would be stripped of his greatest current asset — hope. That’s an appealing idea.
Arnold Friedman is a Los Angeles writer specializing in the criminal justice system and politics.