Guest view: State’s death penalty law creates a dilemma

On May 18, Cheryl Busch, who shot and killed her 19-month-old daughter Donna in November 2008, received a sentence of 25 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder. It seemed about right. In any case, the crime did not qualify for the death penalty under California law according to District Attorney Candice Hooper. As I read that senseless law, if Busch had poisoned her daughter or shot her from a motor vehicle instead, she could have been charged with capital murder. I’d bet most people never heard of some of the death penalty provisions – no one can explain them.

A measure to end the state’s death penalty has qualified for the ballot and is going to the voters in November; if it passes, capital punishment will be eliminated and the sentences of the approximately 725 people on death row would be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I support the death penalty in principle because I believe there are those whose crimes should disqualify them from remaining in the human race and, if properly applied, it may serve as an occasional deterrent. For me there is only one basic argument against it – we might execute the wrong person. It is hardly a small concern. That said, I refuse to support a government farce – the present make-believe death penalty. We have to either fix the system or eliminate capital punishment because the current arrangement is a cruel joke that just reinforces the idea that the government is impotent and incompetent.

The last execution in the state, 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, took place more than six years ago, in January 2006. Allen, a dangerous and incorrigible criminal, is the perfect example of the mess that is the death penalty in California. By the time he was executed, 24 years after his conviction, Allen’s lawyers were arguing that killing him would be cruel and unusual punishment because he was so old and ill; who wouldn’t be after fighting a death sentence with various appeals for almost a quarter of a century?

Allen was convicted of his first murder in 1978 and sentenced to life in prison for ordering the killing of Mary Sue Kitts because she had told Bryon Schletewitz that Allen was responsible for the 1974 burglary at Fran’s Market, which was owned by Schletewitz’s parents. Kitts was strangled and her body dumped in a canal and never recovered.

While in Folsom Prison Allen decided to eliminate the eight witnesses who testified against him and get a new trial. He recruited inmate Billy Ray Hamilton, due for parole, for the crimes. In 1980, Hamilton and his girlfriend went to Fran’s Market shot, killed Byron Schletewitz, 27, with a sawed-off shotgun, killed two employee-bystanders, Josephine Rocha, 17, and Douglas White, 18, execution style, and seriously wounded two other people. When Hamilton was arrested a few days later, he was found in possession of a “hit list” with the names and addresses of the witnesses who testified against Allen.

In 1982, Allen, 52, was found guilty of the three new murders and sentenced to death under various provisions of the law with the special circumstances of 1) a prior murder conviction, 2) multiple murder, and 3) murder in retaliation for prior testimony and to prevent future testimony. The details of what happened during the ensuing 24 years do not really matter because we have had decades to fix the broken system and we haven’t – and there is no indication we ever will.

We obviously want the death penalty – it’s on the books. We just do not want to execute anyone.

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