Janey Peterson was glad to hear that Gov. Gavin Newsom granted reprieves to all 737 condemned inmates awaiting executions in California prisons. Her brother-in-law, former Modesto resident Scott Peterson, has been on death row for nearly 14 years for murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son.
The death penalty moratorium will be in place for the duration of Newsom’s time in office. After that, a future governor could decide to resume executions. That doesn’t do much for Scott Peterson’s appeals, his sister-in-law said.
“Clearly, it’s a relief,” she told The Modesto Bee during a phone interview 17 minutes after Newsom signed an executive order halting the death penalty. “But it’s hard to understand how it’s going to impact our case, because the reality is that Scott’s execution day wouldn’t fall within Governor Newsom’s term. It wouldn’t be scheduled within those eight years.”
The written briefs in Scott Peterson’s appeals have been submitted, but the state Supreme Court has not yet scheduled oral arguments. That process could take several years.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who led the prosecution against Scott Peterson, said Wednesday she was surprised by Newsom’s sudden announcement to halt executions.
“I think the family members and friends of the victims of death row inmates will be justifiably outraged by this decision,” Fladager said in an e-mail.
The state hasn’t executed anyone in more than a decade because of legal challenges. But without Newsom’s moratorium, executions could have resumed for more than 20 inmates who have exhausted their appeals if those challenges were cleared up.
Laci vanished from her Covena Avenue home on Christmas Eve 2002. Her husband said he had been fishing in San Francisco Bay and came home to an empty house, and thousands joined in unsuccessful searches.
Scott Peterson was arrested shortly after the bodies of mother and fetus washed ashore in the bay. He was later convicted of double murder, and he has been housed on death row at San Quentin State Prison since March 2005.
On Wednesday, attempts by The Bee to speak to Laci Peterson’s family were unsuccessful. Her mother, Sharon Rocha, was relieved when California voters in 2016 rejected Proposition 62, which would have eliminated the death penalty and commuted death sentences to life in prison without parole.
“I just hope people truly understand what (the death penalty) is about,” Rocha told The Bee in November 2016. “It’s not about revenge or paybacks. It’s about due justice.”
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A rival initiative to speed up the process of capital punishment, Proposition 66, was approved by the voters in that same California election.
Newsom has been a longtime opponent of the death penalty, but he promised before the November 2016 election that he would not let his opinions get in the way of the public’s right to determine what to do with the death penalty.
While campaigning for Prop. 62 to repeal the death penalty in 2016, he told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters,” if he were elected governor.
Fladager, who also is president of the California District Attorneys Association, said Newsom took an oath to uphold the state’s Constitution, which includes enforcing the death penalty, “a very rare sanction reserved for the worst of the worst murderers.”
She said even Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t take action so contrary to the will of the voters as Newsom’s moratorium has.
“He is clearly letting his own personal feelings drive his official decision-making,” Fladager said about Newsom.
Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said he wasn’t surprised by the decision to stall executions, since Newsom is opposed to the death penalty.
“California hasn’t really been using the death penalty, and the odds of dying of old age on death row are higher than the odds of an execution being carried out,” Carroll said in an e-mail Wednesday.
But he said there certainly are criminal cases where both the voters and those with knowledge of the case believe a death sentence is the appropriate punishment.
Carroll said he is not giving Newsom “a free pass,” since he is the governor, who is tasked with fulfilling the will of the voters. Carroll also said that speaking about the death penalty in sterile or political debates is different than being the person who signs a death warrant or carries out the execution.
Oakdale Police Chief Scott Heller said the decision whether to seek the death penalty resides with prosecutors, and that decision is evaluated and ultimately decided in the court system.
“Life and death decisions are difficult and demanding,” Heller said in an e-mail Wednesday. “The governor has issued his executive order based upon his beliefs.”
Death row prisoners with ties to the Modesto area
|Name||Offense date||Trial county||Sentencing date|
|Michael Bell||Jan. 20, 1997||Stanislaus||June 24, 1999|
|Brian Johnsen||March 1, 1992||Stanislaus||June 9, 1994|
|Huber Mendoza||Dec. 12, 2001||Stanislaus||April 24, 2006|
|Scott Peterson||Dec. 24, 2002||San Mateo (Stanislaus case)||March 16, 2005|
|Rodney San Nicolas||May 6, 1990||Stanislaus||Aug. 31, 1992|
|Michael Slaughter||Jan. 24, 1990||Stanislaus||Nov. 27, 1991|
|Richard Vieira||May 20, 1990||Stanislaus||March 30, 1992|
|Daniel Whalen||March 21, 1994||Stanislaus||June 24, 1996|
|Cuitlatuac Rivera||April 15, 2004||Merced||June 21, 2007|
|Cary Stayner||Feb. 15, 1999||Santa Clara (Mariposa case)||Dec. 12, 2002|
|Keith Adcox||May 27, 1982||Tuolumne||July 11, 1983|
|Jerry Bunyard||Nov. 1, 1979||San Joaquin||Feb. 2, 1981|
|William Choyce||(Multiple Dates)||San Joaquin||Dec. 15, 2008|
|Antonio Espinoza||Jan. 25, 1982||San Joaquin||Sept. 17, 1986|
|Mao Hin||Oct. 10, 2003||San Joaquin||Feb. 24, 2006|
|Danny Horning||Sept. 19, 1990||San Joaquin||Jan. 26, 1995|
|Angelo Melendez||Dec. 13, 2000||San Joaquin||Aug. 18, 2003|