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Death row inmates' desire to die renews debate

Legal experts are divided on whether a condemned prisoner who drops resistance to execution should be allowed a dignified end.

November 25, 2011|By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
  • Oregon prisoner Gary Haugen faced death next month for killing two people, but Gov. John Kitzhaber banned further executions during his term.
Oregon prisoner Gary Haugen faced death next month for killing two people,… (Don Ryan, Associated Press )

San Quentin, Calif. — Serial wife-killer Jerry Stanley wants to die.

Imprisoned on death row for the past 28 years, Stanley insists he deserves execution for the cold-blooded killing of his fourth wife in 1980 and for shooting to death his second wife five years earlier in front of their two children.

Despairing of the isolation and monotony of San Quentin's rooftop fortress for the purportedly doomed, Stanley earlier this year stepped up his campaign for a date with the executioner by offering to solve the cold case of his third wife's disappearance 31 years ago — by disclosing where he buried her body.

When bartering failed to secure him a death warrant, he offered himself up as the test case for resuming the three-drug lethal injections, which had been suspended for six years and remain under judicial review.

"I am willing to be the experimental guy to see whether or not they work," Stanley, 66 and ailing, said in a statement to The Times. "Assuming I can't get lethal injection because of the injunction on the chemicals, I am willing to accept the gas chamber. I understand the gas chamber is available and I insist on getting a date."

One of 718 prisoners on California's death row, Stanley has renewed an ethical debate among legal experts about whether a condemned prisoner who drops resistance to execution has been driven insane by his confinement or has accepted his fate and should be allowed a dignified end.

An Alameda County judge has ruled that Stanley is competent to decide his own legal matters. He is one of at least three condemned men on the nation's death rows volunteering to expedite their sentences. Gary Haugen, an Oregon man convicted of killing his former girlfriend's mother in 1980, and a fellow inmate in 2003, was ruled competent in September and faced a Dec. 6 death by lethal injection until Gov. John Kitzhaber just days ago banned further executions during his term. The third, Eric Robert, killed a guard at his South Dakota prison in April while serving an 80-year sentence for kidnapping. He has vowed to kill again until his death wish is granted.

Since the modern era of capital punishment began with the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah, civil rights advocates and death penalty supporters have debated whether a state would run afoul of laws prohibiting execution of the mentally ill if they bow to a condemned inmate's suicidal impulse.

"Most of these people aren't dropping their appeals because they believe it's the punishment they deserve," said John Blume, a Cornell University law professor and author of "Killing the Willing," a 2005 study of those who abandon pursuit of reprieve.

Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida and other states with more frequent executions see more inmates asking their lawyers to drop appeals, said Blume, who believes that more than 10% of the 1,277 executed nationwide since 1977 had lost the will to live by the time they were executed.

"California has never had a lot of volunteers, maybe because you have lawyers that are better funded and better able to establish relationships with their clients, and there's not a pattern of systematic executions" to demoralize others on death row, said Blume.

In a videotaped plea from San Quentin in September, Stanley told retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge William McKinstry he wanted an end to the maneuverings by lawyers standing between him and the execution machinery four floors below his cell.

Stanley has spent much of his time on death row hand-writing letters to governors, attorneys general and lawmakers. He complains of corrupt guards and self-interested lawyers bent on riding the public defense gravy train that costs California taxpayers more than $100 million a year for death row inmates' cases.

Once a backcountry guide and hunter with a vague resemblance to Clark Gable, Stanley is withered, his black widow's peak and mustache gray and thinning. He suffers from diabetes, hypertension and paranoia.

"I disagreed with trying to get me life when I deserved the death penalty," he told McKinstry in the video linkup from San Quentin, during which he also said he had been fighting his lawyers since his trial began nearly three decades ago.

In a recent letter to The Times, Stanley vowed to stop taking his medications and food if there were any further delays in setting an execution date.

Bay Area attorney Jack Leavitt, who has represented Stanley for the last 13 years, says Stanley deserves representation of his own wishes, not those of the death penalty opponents who dominate the capital defense bar.

"In 1998, he came to me and said he felt like a caged coyote, that he wanted an end to the confinement," Leavitt said. "I promised I would do my best to get that for him."

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