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California Executes Death Row Inmate, 76

January 17, 2006|Henry Weinstein and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

SAN QUENTIN — California prison officials executed 76-year-old murderer Clarence Ray Allen at the state prison here early today after his final appeal was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

His death was announced at 12:38 a.m. by Elaine Jennings of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Allen, who turned 76 Monday, was by far the oldest of the 13 convicts executed in the state since California restored the death penalty in 1977 and the second oldest in the nation.

That status, however, may not endure. California has the nation's largest death row -- 646 inmates -- but executes a relatively small number. As a result, the ranks of the condemned grow steadily more elderly, and now include five older than 70, 34 in their 60s and 155 between 50 and 59.

Lawyers for Allen argued that his lengthy time on death row, age and ill health should have barred his execution; he recently had a heart attack, suffered from diabetes, was legally blind and used a wheelchair. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a series of courts rejected those pleas over the last several days.

On Sunday night, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Allen was already 50 years old and incarcerated at Folsom State Prison for another killing when he orchestrated the triple murder for which he was handed the death penalty in 1982. Evidence at that trial showed he had paid another inmate $25,000 to kill three potential witnesses against him.

"His age and experience only sharpened his ability to coldly calculate the execution of the crime," wrote Wardlaw, an appointee of President Clinton. "Nothing about his current ailments reduces his culpability."

The execution was the second in a month's time, which is rare for California. Last month, the state executed Stanley Tookie Williams, 51, the former leader of the Crips gang. Later this week, a Ventura County Superior Court judge is expected to set an execution date for 46-year-old Michael Morales stemming from a 1983 murder in San Joaquin County.

State officials also have said it is possible that execution dates could be scheduled later this year for two other longtime condemned inmates, Stevie Lamar Fields, 49, and Mitchell Sims, 45.

Allen's last significant court challenge failed Monday afternoon when the Supreme Court denied his request for a stay of execution. As it often does in death cases, the court acted without a written opinion.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer issued the only dissent, a brief statement noting Allen's age, ill health and the fact that he "has been on death row for 23 years."

"I believe that in the circumstances, he raises a significant question as to whether his execution would constitute 'cruel and unusual punishment,' " Breyer wrote.

Since California reinstated the death penalty, the inmates who have been executed have had an average stay on death row of nearly 16 years, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The cases take a long time for several reasons, but chief among them is that the state takes considerable care in reviewing death sentences. The state Supreme Court automatically reviews each capital case. Although the court upholds the overwhelming majority, it does not begin the process until an appellate lawyer has been found to represent the inmate. Finding lawyers able and willing to handle the cases has proved difficult, Chief Justice Ronald M. George has said.

Currently, more than 100 inmates have no lawyer for their appeal, and the waiting list to get an appellate lawyer is several years long, said UC Berkeley law professor Elisabeth Semel, who runs the school's death penalty clinic.

Allen's case did not draw as much media attention as that of Williams, who was executed in December after a massive campaign urging the governor to grant clemency.

Nonetheless, Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based group that opposes capital punishment, held a 25-mile "Walk for Abolition" on Monday, starting at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, proceeding across the Golden Bridge and culminating at San Quentin.

The group said there also would be a rally against the death penalty in Los Angeles and vigils outside the state Capitol and in several other cities around the state. Shortly before the scheduled execution, the number of protesters outside the prison grew to about 300.

Allen maintained his innocence, despite what Judge Wardlaw, in an earlier decision on the case, had called "overwhelming" evidence of his guilt. The case involved the murders of Bryon Schletewitz, 27; Douglas White, 18; and Josephine Rocha, 17. Prosecutors told a jury in Fresno that Allen had organized the murders and paid a fellow inmate, Billy Ray Hamilton, to carry them out.

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