All of the examinations have pointed to a shortage of death penalty-qualified attorneys in the state as a prime cause of the delays in handling appeals from death row prisoners. At the time of the commission's report, it took an average of 10 years for a condemned inmate to get his death sentence reviewed by the California Supreme Court, as required by law.
Michael Millman, executive director of the California Appellate Project, says more than 300 inmates on death row are waiting to have attorneys assigned to work on their state appeals and federal habeas corpus petitions. He says there are fewer than 100 attorneys in the state qualified to handle capital cases because the work is dispiriting and demanding and the compensation inadequate.
Death penalty advocates argue that the lack of attorneys qualified to represent death row inmates in a state with a bar membership over 230,000 is deliberate.
"Choking off the appeals is part of the strategy" of those opposed to capital punishment, Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, says of what he calls unnecessarily elaborate state court requirements for taking on death penalty cases.
In their report, Alarcon and Mitchell raise the prospect of costly new legal challenges to the state's handling of capital inmates because of the dozens who have died while waiting for lawyers to be assigned for their appeals. Of the 92 death row inmates who have died since 1978, only 13 were executed in California and one was executed in Missouri, while 54 died of natural causes, 18 by suicide and six by inmate violence or undetermined causes.
Federal judges find fault with about 70% of the California death row prisoners' convictions and send them back to the trial courts for further proceedings, the report noted. That could make the state vulnerable to charges of denying inmates due process, the authors warned.
The report also says the corrections department and the Legislative Analyst's Office failed to honestly assess and disclose to the public what 30 years of tough-on-crime legislation and ballot measures actually cost.
"We hope that California voters, informed of what the death penalty actually costs them, will cast their informed votes in favor of a system that makes sense," the report concludes.