Victims’ relatives divided on ending death penalty

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, shown last year, joined former Govs. Gray Davis and George Deukmejian at a news conference Tuesday to oppose Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty in California.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

Past California governors joined with crime victims Tuesday to announce their opposition to a proposal to end the death penalty, while a second set of victims said ending capital punishment would give them closure.

Former Gov. Gray Davis joined Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian at a news conference in Los Angeles, a key battleground for the campaign opposing Proposition 34, which would replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole. Alluding to the conclusion by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office that Proposition 34 could save the state as much as $130 million a year, Davis said the measure “has nothing to do with economics — and everything to do with justice.”

“When it comes to keeping California safe, voters should ask themselves, who do they trust?” Davis said.


In opposing Proposition 34, Davis said he was standing with law enforcement and “the families of crime victims who have suffered incredible pain at the hands of violent criminals.”

Joe Bonaminio, the father of slain Riverside Police Officer Ryan Bonaminio, 27, read a letter from his daughter asking voters to oppose the initiative so that Bonaminio’s killer can be executed. Bonaminio, an Iraq war veteran, was shot in the head while pursuing a suspect.

But crime victims at a separate news conference hosted by the League of Women Voters said the rarely enforced death penalty failed to deter crime, wasted money and forced the victims’ loved ones to endure decades of court appeals and uncertainty.

“I don’t want or need the death penalty,” said Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed and mother was shot last year at a Seal Beach beauty salon.

Webb, 51, a loan officer who lives in Huntington Beach, said Orange County prosecutors have told victims’ families that they should be prepared for 25 years of appeals and court dates if Scott Evans Dekraai, the accused gunman, is sentenced to death. Dekraai, who is charged with killing eight people, has yet to be tried.

“That is not closure for my family,” Webb said. “That is not closure for the other families.”


Proposition 34 would commute the death sentences of the state’s more than 727 death row inmates to life without parole and end automatic public funding for lawyers to challenge murder convictions.

Supporters of capital punishment argue that any savings could be consumed by lifetime healthcare for inmates. They note that none of the 13 offenders executed in California since 1978 was later found to be innocent.

Executions in California have been blocked by the courts for six years but could resume at a brisk pace if the state adopted a single-drug method of lethal injection, death penalty supporters say. About 14 inmates on death row have already exhausted their primary appeals.

Deukmejian, speaking at the opposition’s news conference, called the death penalty “a proven deterrent.”

“Criminals know the law and in many cases are afraid of receiving a death sentence,” Deukmejian said. “This threat can prevent violence on the streets and against correctional officers serving in state prisons.”

Crime victims in favor of Proposition 34 disagreed. Dion Wilson, whose husband, San Leandro Police Officer Nels “Dan” Niemi, 42, was killed while responding to a disturbance call in 2005, said she burned with hatred for his killer and desperately wanted him sentenced to death.

But when his killer was sentenced to death, she received no solace, she said.

“I thought I would feel better,” said Wilson, 43, a massage therapist who now lives in Morgan Hill, Calif. “But I didn’t feel better. It didn’t work.... It didn’t change anything.”

Opponents of Proposition 34 include police, a statewide prosecutors’ association and victims’ groups. Supporters include the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, the former prosecutor who wrote the death penalty law, a former San Quentin Prison warden who presided over executions, retired Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and executioners from other states.

A poll released Tuesday by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University showed Proposition 34 trailing by nearly 7 points, with 41.3% in favor and 47.9% opposed.