Peterson: Trial Stories

Death row not seen as the end of the line

San Quentin is a harsh yet intriguing chunk of real estate on Point Quentin -- an area named for a local native called Ka-teen -- on the north side of San Francisco Bay.

"(Ka-teen) was no saint," prison Lt. Eric Messick said. "The San got in there somehow."

Built by inmate labor, the prison opened in 1852 as a privately owned facility. Among the original contractors: Mariano Vallejo, the former Mexican general removed from power during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. By the 1860s, the state ran it through wardens appointed by the governor.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, California has executed 13 people -- all at San Quentin.

Few of the condemned go there expecting to die for their crimes, Messick said.

"Their belief is that they're not going to be executed," he said. "They expect they'll get their case commuted or live long enough to get their case com-muted. In fact, the No. 1 way off of death row is commutation of sentence, appeal or resentencing."

Or expiring by other means including suicide, health issues or with the help of their brethren -- the jury of their true peers.

Since 1978, two inmates have been murdered while housed on the row.

"We've had 15 suicides compared with 13 executions since they brought back the death penalty," Messick said.

Executions are taken seriously among those on death row, Messick said.

"When a guy's executed, he leaves friends on death row," he said. "It's somber mood."

Those in the general population probably wouldn't much care, except it affects them, too.

"They get locked down for 18 hours because we have to redirect so many staff to support all the different things," Messick said.

The prison, like most others, is overcrowded. With a designed capacity of 3,317 inmates, the current population is 5,222. Death row, built to house 554, has 622 condemned.

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