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Slow Ride to the Death Chamber

December 15, 2004

Notwithstanding the whooping cheers from the Redwood City crowd at the news of his death sentence, Scott Peterson is unlikely to die by lethal injection soon, if ever. Meanwhile, Monday's feel-good moment will cost Californians millions more than the price of locking Peterson away for life with no possibility of parole.

A jury last month found Peterson, a Modesto fertilizer salesman, guilty of murdering his wife and unborn son. The separate death penalty vote came shortly after jurors asked to again see, up close, large photos of Laci Peterson's mutilated and decomposed remains and those of the fetus. The bodies washed ashore along San Francisco Bay four months after she went missing on Christmas Eve 2002.

The trial drew crowds to the courthouse near San Francisco and a stream of legal experts to the microphone. Police had arrested Peterson after an extramarital affair was confirmed in trembling revelations by his lover. When nabbed on a La Jolla golf course, he had $15,000 in cash, a truck full of camping gear and bleached hair. The case turned into a cable TV and tabloid staple that demeaned the lives lost.

Peterson's death sentence means this perverse reality show will probably play on for many and costly years longer.

Start with his single cell at San Quentin and the two guards who, under the policy for death row prisoners, must escort him every time he leaves it. Add in fees for the lawyers who must be appointed to prepare for the California Supreme Court's mandatory review of his sentence, an appeal designed to keep those innocent or unfairly convicted from being executed. Since 1978, when the death penalty again became an option, California has executed just 10 murderers. Another execution is scheduled for January.

Peterson joins 641 condemned men and women -- more than in any other state -- who are still on this glacial conveyor belt to the death chamber. It's a ride that, according to one estimate, costs taxpayers $90 million annually more than incarcerating them for life would. Now why, exactly, did California reinstate capital punishment?

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