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California and the West

Execution Stills a Life but Not a Controversy

Criminals: Though killer admitted rapes and murders, capital punishment opponents say he should not have been put to death. Some of his victims' relatives say he didn't suffer enough.

March 16, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — He was a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a bit of a paunch, strapped to a reclining dentist chair. An eagle feather lay on his chest. He barely moved. His eyes were shut.

So quiet were Darrell Keith Rich's final moments that his passage from life to death was imperceptible to witnesses. It was a striking contrast to the summer of rage that had led him to San Quentin's execution chamber, a seemingly peaceful end for a man who had killed brutally and repeatedly during two months of 1978.

For some of the victims' relatives who watched, his death by lethal injection was not enough.

"It was too easy for Darrell Keith Rich after what he put us through for 22 years," a sister of Annette Edwards, one of his victims, said in a statement a few minutes after midnight Wednesday.

For Berkeley defense attorney James S. Thomson, who had appealed Rich's case for a decade, it was proof "that the person they were trying to kill was not the person they killed," that Rich had come to terms with his demons and was no longer the man who had savagely raped and murdered four women and girls.

The case of Rich, the eighth person put to death in California since the state resumed executions in 1992, pared capital punishment to its core.

There was no dispute that he committed the crimes. He had confessed.

There was no dispute that his actions were horrific. He had kidnapped, raped and bludgeoned, tossed a child off a 105-foot-high bridge and shot a mother twice in the mouth after she pleaded for her life.

There was only American society's continuing, passionate debate over the morality of the state taking lives.

"Today my family and I will visit my sister's grave and tell her she can finally, truly rest in peace," said Gordon Yates, the brother of the woman whom Rich shot in the mouth. "After 22 years my family and I can feel that some semblance of justice has finally been done."

Outside the prison gates, anti-death penalty protesters said that Rich's guilt was all the more reason for them to be there--that killing a person is wrong no matter who does it or why.

"Tonight it's more important to be out here than any other night because this man did commit some horrible crimes," said Marianne Clough, an occupational therapist from San Francisco who was one of several hundred activists on hand. "We're still out here to stand as witness against capital punishment."

Rich, 45, was convicted two decades ago of attacking nine women and girls in Shasta County, raping eight of them and killing four: Annette Selix, 11; Pam Moore, 17; Edwards, 19; and Linda Slavik, 28.

One of his surviving rape victims was among the execution witnesses. She sat at the edge of the glass-and-green-metal death chamber, near Pam Moore's brother, Annette Selix's stepfather, Edwards' sister, Slavik's son and the brother of another surviving rape victim.

They watched in stony silence after a curtain was pulled at 12:06 a.m., revealing Rich, strapped in the chair, as a lethal mixture of drugs coursed through his veins, sedating him, slowing his breathing and finally inducing a fatal heart attack.

The prisoner's last word to the San Quentin warden earlier in the evening had been: "Peace."

"He was deliberately trying to be prepared to pass over to the spiritual world," Thomson said.

Rich had refused his last meal, asking the prison to give $50, the maximum the state would spend on the dinner, to a homeless organization. The request was denied, a corrections spokeswoman said, because the state cannot make donations.

The defense team spent Tuesday waging a futile court battle to force prison authorities to allow Rich, who was part Cherokee, to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a Native American purification ritual, before being executed.

Although there is a sweat lodge on prison grounds, the warden said prison policy bars death row inmates from leaving their housing to use it. Thomson argued that Rich was being deprived of his religious rights and filed a federal lawsuit last week, appealing it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned him down three hours before the execution.

Thomson also asked Gov. Gray Davis and President Clinton to intercede, but they never responded.

The attorney, the former president of a statewide criminal defense association, complained bitterly that Davis had not returned several phone calls Tuesday. He further criticized the governor for not responding to the defense request that Davis reconsider his denial of Rich's clemency petition.

"In the end, Gov. Davis proved to be a political and moral coward," said Thomson, who witnessed the execution along with another member of the defense team and a spiritual advisor.

"The process in this case was scrupulously followed," said Hilary McLean, Davis' deputy press secretary. She said that at least two members of the governor's legal staff were at the prison Tuesday night. "It's just untrue to say there was no response."

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