California’s death penalty system has been broken for so long, you could forgive people for thinking that it no longer exists. The last person executed at San Quentin was Clarence Ray Allen, who arranged the murders of three people in Fresno — one who revealed details of a burglary Allen had planned, and two others who testified against him. His January 2006 execution came 23 years after his conviction.
Since then, legal challenges have left California without a constitutional method of executing prisoners. The state has proposed a new lethal-injection protocol, but more lawsuits will likely stall the resumption of executions for the foreseeable future, and an initiative headed for the fall ballot would ban it outright. It’s unclear how many executions have been forestalled by the freeze. Of 747 people on California’s death row — most of them men held at San Quentin — only 18 have exhausted their appeals and could be slated for execution should the “machinery of death,” as Justice Harry A. Blackmun once described it, ever be turned back on.
The state historically has argued that it could not acquiesce in removing a convicted killer from death row unless it believed there was a miscarriage of justice. And the mental state of a condemned person does not become a legal issue until execution is near, in part because many forms of mental illness come and go.
But now, under an agreement worked out with the state-funded office that coordinates death sentence appeals, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has taken the unusual step of joining the defense in asking the state Supreme Court to invalidate the death sentence of Ronnie McPeters. McPeters, a panhandler convicted of the 1984 murder of Linda Pasnick in Fresno, converses with a nonexistent wife and children, hoards his feces and says he’s tormented by the voices of his victim’s relatives.
One inmate continually bangs his head against the wall, believes he is controlled by computer chips and says he dies every night only to be reborn [every day].
Though we wish that Harris, who personally opposes the death penalty, would use this opportunity to make a broader call for its abolition, we welcome her efforts to move inmates such as McPeters off death row. Working with defense lawyers to identify those ineligible for the death penalty earlier in the appeals process keeps the state from wasting time and resources pursuing executions that are constitutionally barred from occurring. No public interest is served by the state doggedly fighting a battle it knows it can’t win, and we hope the state Supreme Court affirms this new process.
What depths of insanity are involved here? One inmate continually bangs his head against the wall, believes he is controlled by computer chips and says he dies every night only to be reborn the next morning. Another seesaws between delusions and catatonia, spending days at a time naked and smeared with his own feces on the floor of his cell. Several have had their appeals indefinitely delayed because they are too incapacitated to assist in their own counsel, yet they remain on death row ostensibly awaiting execution. If they’re too crazy for court, they’re certainly too crazy for the death chamber.
Victims’ families have legitimate grievances, and a right to want the guilty punished. But executions do not achieve justice; they are revenge killings conducted by the state on behalf of the victims, and serve no broader societal or judicial purpose. And fighting to push the insane closer to the needle moves the practice into the realm of the absurd.
If a condemned person doesn’t understand why he or she is to be killed by the state, the state must recognize that and place the convicted in circumstances that will ensure basic constitutional rights are protected. Even the guilty are human beings, and must be treated as such.