Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Waiting out the death penalty

In 1981, Royal Kenneth Hayes lured a San Francisco couple to the University of California, Santa Cruz, for what was supposed to be a $250,000 cocaine deal.

Five years later, a jury in Santa Cruz County convicted him of two counts of murder. Hayes severed his victims’ heads and hands and, with the help of two female accomplices, buried their remaining remains. Really gruesome stuff.

But the same panel couldn’t agree whether he, too, deserved to die. So a change of venue sent the second go-round of the penalty phase to Stanislaus County, where jurors determined Hayes should, indeed, be executed in San Quentin State Prison’s gas chamber.

Hayes was 48 when he arrived on the notorious prison’s death row. He’s still there at 77, joined by at least 10 others who either were convicted in or committed their crimes in Stanislaus County. The list includes Scott Peterson, Michael Bell and three from the Salida massacres of 1990. Others from the region on death row include Cary Stayner, convicted of murdering three Yosemite tourists in 1999; Cuitlatuac Rivera, who killed Merced police officer Stephan Gray in 2004; Hubert Mendoza, sentenced in 2006 for killing three people in a south Modesto shooting rampage; and Keith Edward Adcox of Tuolumne County, sentenced in 1983 for killing a fisherman on the banks of the Tuolumne River.

Another, Dennis Lawley, died of natural causes in 2012 after being sent to death row for the murder of a man in Modesto in 1989.

Adcox was 21 at the time of sentencing. He is 53 now, having spent 32 years awaiting execution even though the state Supreme Court upheld his death penalty conviction in 1988. In fact, eight of the area’s condemned have been on death row 20 years or longer.

Execution by the state of California has been dormant since a judge stopped them in 2006, citing flaws in the way inmates are put to death. And last week, federal Judge Cormac Carney ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional due to lack of use.

Birgit Fladager, Stanislaus County’s district attorney, prosecuted two still on death row: Bell and Peterson. She said that while Carney’s ruling applied to a specific case, it lays out a blueprint for appeals by others in the future.

In essence, the slowness of the system – the lengthy appeals process, along with lawsuits and delays fostered by death penalty opponents – has created a “use it or lose it” scenario blended with a Catch-22 caveat: The state can’t use it and therefore is losing it.

The process is slow by design, in theory to ensure a condemned man due process before being put to death. Peterson was convicted nine years ago of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. His private (not appointed) attorneys appealed the 2005 conviction. The state’s appellate attorney is likely to respond this winter, Fladager said.

Bell, meanwhile, killed Turlock convenience store clerk Semon Francis in 1997. His 1999 death sentence still hasn’t gone to the state Supreme Court for affirmation. But even if the court were to uphold the death sentence tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter. Neither Bell nor anyone else on death row is going to die anytime soon from anything other than old age or other natural causes, and continue to cost the taxpayers roughly $90,000 per year per death row inmate just in upkeep.

In 1994, then-Modesto Bee reporter Tim Moran and I teamed to work on a story about the projected cost of executing three men convicted in the 1990 slayings of four people in Salida. We looked at the costs involving keeping them on San Quentin’s death row for decades, the cost of appellate attorneys usually borne by the taxpayers, maintaining and expanding the prison system itself, and costs incurred in moving the trials elsewhere due to changes in venue.

The estimate was eye-opening: $3.5 million to $4.5 million, and that was 20 years ago, when unleaded regular gasoline cost about $1.30 per gallon, and milk $2.88.

A decade later, taxpayers spent $4.13 million on the Peterson case, which was moved from Stanislaus County to Redwood City in San Mateo County. And that doesn’t take into consideration the ongoing taxpayer-borne cost of keeping him alive long enough to someday execute him ... OK, maybe ... OK, probably not, following last week’s decision, which is sure to spawn similar arguments in future appeals.

A 2011 study by a judge and college professor, updated in 2012, claims the state could save $170 million a year and $5 billion over the next 20 by scuttling death row and commuting those inmates’ sentences to life without parole.

That also would mean 748 of the most heinous killers the state has ever known might lose their private cells, separate yard time and have to mingle with the lower-echelon crooks and riffraff in the general population. They might clamor for the end of the death penalty, but you don’t hear many protesting their housing arrangements.

Convicted murderers like Peterson, Bell, Rivera, Stayner and their ilk are there to await execution. If that isn’t going to happen, it makes death row little more than the high-rent district of California’s most notorious gated community.

So why wait? Condemn it.