December 6, 2005

California should speed execution process

By Adam Tanner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California should execute or
reprieve death row prisoners within about five years instead of
the present 20 and do more to speed up the process, the chief
justice of the state's Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

"If people want to have the death penalty, then I think
sufficient resources should be provided to carry out the
process in a timely way," Chief Justice Ronald George told
Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

"I don't mean an overly rushed way, but I think it's a poor
reflection on the administration of justice if it gets to be
something like out of Charles Dickens 'Bleak House' when these
cases go on for decade after decade."

George, whose court reviews all death penalty cases in
California, spoke ahead of the scheduled execution by lethal
injection next week of Stanley Tookie Williams, the co-founder
of the Crips gang who killed four in petty robberies in 1979.

Williams has literally gone gray in the 24 years since he
sentenced to death in 1981 and California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger is due to decide whether to grant him clemency
in the coming days. The Williams case has drawn wide publicity
amid a well-organized campaign saying he has earned redemption
by writing a series of anti-gang books in prison.

"The leading cause of death on death row in California is
old age -- that's literally true," said George, who was
appointed by a Republican governor to the court in 1991.

"If you have a death penalty, I don't think it is
appropriate to have these proceedings go on so long," George
said. "I would think in most instances this should be finalized
with either an affirmance or a reversal within perhaps five
years, let's say, but not 20."


During an interview with Williams at San Quentin prison
last month, a visitor saw half a dozen other death row inmates,
all of whom appeared to be in their 50s, 60s or older.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
lists 648 condemned inmates, the longest serving of whom
arrived on Death Row in 1978. Since then, California has
executed 11 men, while 48 have died from natural causes,
suicide or other reasons.

"We don't want to turn them out the way they do in the
southern states, you know, lickety-split, but on the other
hand, because of the lack of resources to do things right, it
takes much longer in California," Chief Justice George said.

"We even have sometimes a delay of three or four years
before we can even find an attorney who we think is competent
to represent these people on appeal after they have received
their judgment of death."

Even after years of legal review of a murder case, the
state's top judges gather 15 minutes before midnight on the
night of the execution, and plan to so again next Monday.

"The warden inquires a couple minutes before midnight is
there any cause pending before the California Supreme Court why
they should not go forward with the execution." George said.

"Then we end up hearing a blow by blow of what's happening
and then we wait there until we hear the words 'flat line' and
then go home -- that means there is no pulse on the monitors."