A view of the new lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison. (Los Angeles Times )
When James Lee Crummel hanged himself last month, very few mourned his passing. A child molester who kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered a 13-year-old boy in 1979, Crummel was on death row in San Quentin when he took his own life using an extension cord. What's notable about this is that he was the 20th death row inmate to commit suicide since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978. That's seven more than the number of convicts who have been executed since then.
This figure says something about the false promise of capital punishment: The families of victims may get some visceral satisfaction when their loved ones' killers are sentenced to death, but this turns to frustration and bitterness as decades pass without the sentences being carried out. Fifty-seven death row inmates have died of natural causes since 1978, so such prisoners are almost six times more likely to expire by their own or nature's hand than by the executioner's.
Proponents and opponents of the death penalty have very different reactions to such statistics. To proponents, it's an indication that our court system is hopelessly overprotective of the rights of criminals and that the appeals process should be streamlined. Yet this ignores the moral and legal imperative to do everything possible to ensure, before carrying out the ultimate penalty, that a convict is truly guilty. False convictions happen more often than many realize — according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 140 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 while awaiting execution. Court delays also block unconstitutional and inhumane executions; California, for instance, hasn't executed anyone since 2006 as lawyers wrangle over the pain experienced by inmates during lethal injection. Moreover, even as lengthy and costly appeals drag on, there is no way to be 100% certain of an inmate's guilt, which is why we favor replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
A measure on the November ballot, the SAFE California Act, would do exactly that, and we hope voters will support it. Meanwhile, California prosecutors, in particular L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, should stop pursuing capital cases until the voters have had their say. There's some evidence that they're already slowing down. Last year there were only 10 death sentences in California, down from 29 in the previous two years; in L.A. County, Cooley pursued death in only five cases, down from eight in 2010.
Experts attribute the downturn to budget cuts, with prosecutors being reluctant to pursue costly capital cases as their resources are slashed. That's a good reason for shutting down the machinery of death, but we have a better one. Public support for capital punishment has been plummeting in recent years, and for reasons of cost, morality and effectiveness, voters may finally be willing to pursue a better course. Let's give them their chance to weigh in before continuing with a penalty that is no more protective of society than life without parole.