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New Appeal Planned for Condemned Killer

Courts: Bid for ruling to permit Indian sweat lodge ceremony could delay execution scheduled for tonight.

March 14, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for condemned killer Darrell Keith Rich said they will go to court this morning to appeal a legal ruling preventing their client from taking part in a Native American sweat lodge ceremony before his scheduled execution tonight.

Their appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could delay Rich's trip to the execution chamber, where the serial killer is set to die by lethal injection shortly after midnight.

Citing security concerns, San Quentin Prison officials have rejected Rich's request to go through the purification ceremony. On Monday in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker refused to overrule the prison warden, rejecting Rich's arguments that he was being denied his religious rights.

"The state's denial of the sacred sweat lodge ceremony violates the United States Constitution and international treaty law," said James S. Thomson, one of Rich's attorneys. "It is also . . . racial discrimination and gratuitous cruelty."

Rich, sent to death row nearly two decades ago for the sexual assault and murder of four women and girls in Shasta County, says he has Cherokee blood on both sides of his family and has been involved in Native American activities for years at San Quentin.

"I fear that if I am not able to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony, I will not be spiritually purified to enter the spirit world," he wrote in a court declaration.

Although San Quentin has a sweat lodge at the prison, San Quentin officials say death row inmates are not allowed to use it for safety reasons.

Thomson has responded that the security concerns are absurd because Rich, 45, has agreed to a strip search before the ceremony, would be almost nude during the ritual and is so disabled by arthritis and degenerative disk disease that he has to use a cane.

Rich's attorneys have asked Gov. Gray Davis to intervene in the matter and urged Davis to reconsider his Friday decision denying Rich clemency. A spokeswoman for Davis said that as of Monday afternoon, what the governor "said on Friday stands."

Over the weekend, Rich was permitted to engage in a pipe-smoking ceremony with his 25-year-old son, his son's mother and several spiritual advisors, including Lenny Foster, coordinator for the National Native American Prisoners Rights Advocates coalition, who wants to perform the sweat lodge ceremony.

"The white man has continued to take away all our rights, including the right to prayer," Foster said in a Monday interview. "It's a very sad commentary on the criminal justice system."

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