Death row inmates’ desire to die renews debate
Serial wife-killer Jerry Stanley wants to die.
Imprisoned on death row for the past 28 years, Stanley insists he deserves execution for the cold-blooded killing of his fourth wife in 1980 and for shooting to death his second wife five years earlier in front of their two children.
Despairing of the isolation and monotony of San Quentin’s rooftop fortress for the purportedly doomed, Stanley earlier this year stepped up his campaign for a date with the executioner by offering to solve the cold case of his third wife’s disappearance 31 years ago — by disclosing where he buried her body.
When bartering failed to secure him a death warrant, he offered himself up as the test case for resuming the three-drug lethal injections, which had been suspended for six years and remain under judicial review.
“I am willing to be the experimental guy to see whether or not they work,” Stanley, 66 and ailing, said in a statement to The Times. “Assuming I can’t get lethal injection because of the injunction on the chemicals, I am willing to accept the gas chamber. I understand the gas chamber is available and I insist on getting a date.”
One of 718 prisoners on California’s death row, Stanley has renewed an ethical debate among legal experts about whether a condemned prisoner who drops resistance to execution has been driven insane by his confinement or has accepted his fate and should be allowed a dignified end.
An Alameda County judge has ruled that Stanley is competent to decide his own legal matters. He is one of at least three condemned men on the nation’s death rows volunteering to expedite their sentences. Gary Haugen, an Oregon man convicted of killing his former girlfriend’s mother in 1980, and a fellow inmate in 2003, was ruled competent in September and faced a Dec. 6 death by lethal injection until Gov. John Kitzhaber just days ago banned further executions during his term. The third, Eric Robert, killed a guard at his South Dakota prison in April while serving an 80-year sentence for kidnapping. He has vowed to kill again until his death wish is granted.
Since the modern era of capital punishment began with the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah, civil rights advocates and death penalty supporters have debated whether a state would run afoul of laws prohibiting execution of the mentally ill if they bow to a condemned inmate’s suicidal impulse.
“Most of these people aren’t dropping their appeals because they believe it’s the punishment they deserve,” said John Blume, a Cornell University law professor and author of “Killing the Willing,” a 2005 study of those who abandon pursuit of reprieve.
Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida and other states with more frequent executions see more inmates asking their lawyers to drop appeals, said Blume, who believes that more than 10% of the 1,277 executed nationwide since 1977 had lost the will to live by the time they were executed.
“California has never had a lot of volunteers, maybe because you have lawyers that are better funded and better able to establish relationships with their clients, and there’s not a pattern of systematic executions” to demoralize others on death row, said Blume.
In a videotaped plea from San Quentin in September, Stanley told retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge William McKinstry he wanted an end to the maneuverings by lawyers standing between him and the execution machinery four floors below his cell.
Stanley has spent much of his time on death row hand-writing letters to governors, attorneys general and lawmakers. He complains of corrupt guards and self-interested lawyers bent on riding the public defense gravy train that costs California taxpayers more than $100 million a year for death row inmates’ cases.
Once a backcountry guide and hunter with a vague resemblance to Clark Gable, Stanley is withered, his black widow’s peak and mustache gray and thinning. He suffers from diabetes, hypertension and paranoia.
“I disagreed with trying to get me life when I deserved the death penalty,” he told McKinstry in the video linkup from San Quentin, during which he also said he had been fighting his lawyers since his trial began nearly three decades ago.
In a recent letter to The Times, Stanley vowed to stop taking his medications and food if there were any further delays in setting an execution date.
Bay Area attorney Jack Leavitt, who has represented Stanley for the last 13 years, says Stanley deserves representation of his own wishes, not those of the death penalty opponents who dominate the capital defense bar.
“In 1998, he came to me and said he felt like a caged coyote, that he wanted an end to the confinement,” Leavitt said. “I promised I would do my best to get that for him.”
Mark E. Olive in Florida and Joseph Schlesinger in Sacramento, two of the taxpayer-funded lawyers shepherding Stanley’s habeas corpus petitions through the court, have urged the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to disregard Stanley’s erratic statements, which they called “insincere, driven by ulterior motives, and as changing as the wind.” Stanley is “severely mentally disordered,” they argued in a brief.
“He once claimed that former Warden Jeannie Woodford visited him in his cell, removed her high-heeled shoes and beat him with them,” Olive told the court. “He once claimed that Deputy Attorney General Ruth Saavedra urinated on his legal materials. He once claimed his habeas counsel, who knows he is allergic to penicillin, attempted to kill him by sending him a package of cupcakes that were past their sell-by date.”
Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who has worked with death row volunteers for 30 years, calls the pursuit of execution “suicide by court.”
“Over the course of time there are many who say ‘I’d rather die than remain here,’ ” O'Brien said. He notes that volunteers “can be very persuasive, even if they are seriously mentally ill. A person intent on killing himself can figure out how to get the job done. They know what to say.”
Death penalty supporters see nothing wrong with that and urge states to honor the volunteers’ wishes.
“There’s no constitutional right of defense attorneys to not be fired. If the inmate doesn’t want to appeal, he can waive his rights, fire his attorneys and move on to be executed,” said Dudley Sharp, founder of Justice Matters and a vocal backer of capital punishment. “The problem in California is that the judiciary does everything it can to draw out a case.”
The 9th Circuit’s chief judge, Alex Kozinski, is among those who believe courts should respect a competent prisoner’s wish to get on with execution. In a 1997 article for the New Yorker, “Tinkering with Death,” Kozinski said his fellow judges who declined to let a death row prisoner waive his appeals were “denying his humanity by refusing to accept his decision.” Kozinski is prohibited from discussing current cases, such as Stanley’s, but confirmed that his views on death row volunteers are basically unchanged.
When McKinstry ruled in late September that Stanley was mentally competent, the last legal challenge made by his appointed lawyers was resolved, clearing the way for the 9th Circuit to deny what could be the final appeal filed on Stanley’s behalf.
Nevertheless, Stanley’s execution may still be years away.
“If they move forward with an effort to carry out a gas chamber execution, they will face multiple legal challenges at much expense to the people of California and they will lose,” said Natasha Minsker, an American Civil Liberties Union death penalty expert. She noted that a 2007 ruling in Marin County deemed all California execution protocols invalid because they hadn’t been subjected to public comment or independent agency review.
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