SAN FRANCISCO - When James Lee Crummel hanged himself in his San Quentin Prison cell last month, he had been living on Death Row for almost eight years — and he was still years away from facing the executioner.
California's automatic death penalty appeals take so long that the state's 723 condemned inmates are more likely to die of old age and infirmities —or kill themselves — than be put to death.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, California has executed 13 inmates, and none since 2006. But 20 have committed suicide, including Crummel, who abducted, sexually abused and killed a 13-year-old boy on his way to school in 1979. Another 57 inmates have died of natural causes. The ponderous pace of this process has helped make the state's death row the most populous in the nation, and it has generated critics from all quarters.
Victim rights groups say the delays amount to justice denied. Death penalty opponents say the process, like execution itself, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
And now the state's voters will get an opportunity this November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty, which critics deride as an inefficient and expensive system for a financially troubled state.
It took the Supreme Court four years to appoint Crummel a public defender, and it took his attorney almost that long to file his opening brief after several time extensions. Crummel's appeal was expected to consume a few more years before the high court decided the case.
While most condemned inmates welcome legal delays, even those seeking a speedy resolution are stymied.
Scott Peterson, who was sentenced to death seven years ago for murdering his pregnant wife Laci, is attempting to get his case before the Supreme Court as soon as possible, because he says he was wrongly convicted.
Peterson's parents hired a top-notch private appellate lawyer after sentencing, while other Death Row inmates wait an average of five years each for appointment of taxpayer-funded public defenders.
"We are moving at lightning speed compared to most automatic appeals," said Peterson's attorney Cliff Gardner. "He wants to establish his innocence."
The slow wheels of death penalty appeals, and the billions of dollars spent on them over the years, are making converts of some of capital punishment's biggest backers, including the author of a 1978 ballot measure that expanded the types of crimes eligible for capital punishment in the state.
Retired prosecutor Donald Heller, who wrote the 1978 proposition, and Ron Briggs, the initiative's campaign manager who now serves on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, say they support abolition in California because the system is too costly and hardly anyone is being put to death.
"We'd thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers," Briggs said in a statement. "Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddles murderers and enriches lawyers. "
The current measure — known as the SAFE California Act — would convert all death sentences to life in prison without parole and redirect $100 million from the death penalty system to be spent over three years investigating unsolved murders and rapes.
Despite the growing backlog, district attorneys continue to send murderers to death row. Five new inmates have arrived this year, and several more are expected, including Los Angeles gang member 24-year-old Pedro Espinoza who was convicted of shooting to death a high school football player. A jury recommended death for Espinoza, and a judge is scheduled formally sentence him in September.
Meantime, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is attempting to immediately resume executions of two longtime Death Row inmates Mitchell Carleton Sims, 52, and Tiequon Aundray Cox, 46, who have exhausted all of their appeals. Sims has been on Death Row since 1987, Cox since 1986.
"It is time Sims and Cox pay for their crimes," said Cooley, who is asking that the inmates be executed with a single drug rather than the three-drug lethal cocktail now being challenged in federal and state courts. The California District Attorneys Association is backing Cooley's attempt to resume executions.
Cooley argues appeals rather than trials consume the lion's share of what the state spends administering the death penalty in California. Cooley wants executions to remain on hold until after the November election. But if the death penalty is retained, he proposes a change in the law to allow the State Court of Appeal to start handling death penalty appeals rather than automatically sending every case to the Supreme Court for review.
Appealing the death penalty in California takes decades for a variety of reasons. There are too few qualified attorneys to handle too many automatic death penalty appeals, resulting in inmates waiting about five years each for a public defender. Once an inmate is represented by counsel, it still takes additional years to put together the voluminous trial record that serves at the heart of the appeal.
Those records often exceed 70,000 pages, according to Peterson's attorney, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if his client's record reached 80,000 pages.
Gardner says he expects to file his appeal brief later this month.
They estimated that $4 billion has been spent on all facets of the state's death penalty since 1978, including $925 million on appeals.
California's death penalty, the authors said, is a "multibillion-dollar fraud on California taxpayers" that has seen "billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to create a bloated system, in which condemned inmates languish on death row for decades before dying of natural causes and in which executions rarely take place."