Time is on Peterson's side

Posted: Dec 19, 2004 12:00 AM

You can't call a government just or democratic when it heeds the will of its citizens, its courts and its juries only about 2 percent of the time.

 So with all due respect to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, he shouldn't be content that, by his own admission, the state's death-row inmates are more likely to die of old age than lethal injection. The members of the jury that recommended a sentence of death for Scott Peterson may discover that they sacrificed months of their lives and endured much personal anguish to produce a verdict and sentence that the criminal justice system is too likely to ignore.

 "We don't turn them out like Texas, and I'm glad that we don't," George noted at his annual year-end briefing this week. I agree with George that Texas juries over-apply the death penalty. The panels often choose capital punishment for murders that result more from panic and stupidity than deliberate depravity.

 But California courts should not under-enforce the death penalty, either. Yet they do. With 641 inmates awaiting execution in California, there should have been more than 10 executions in California since 1992. The system is broken.

 Some argue that the delay is due to the court's high standards in choosing appellate attorneys. Too bad the system has next to no standards when it comes to time and money. The courts now pay a pretty penny for competent appellate attorneys -- though that choice would be worth the money if the courts acted promptly.

 Instead, delay is the order of the day. Consider that convicted killer Charles Ng has enjoyed a five-year reprieve because the California courts still haven't appointed an appellate attorney to contest Ng's death sentence. That five-year wait is standard, I learned recently, even though the state has a public defender's office. Ng, by the way, was found guilty in 1999 for the slaughter of six men, two babies and three women, whom he tortured.

 Death-penalty opponents love to bring up the high cost of death-penalty appeals as a reason to oppose capital punishment. Meanwhile, they remain silent about the pricey tab for frivolous appeals and costly delays. A five-year delay equals more than $100,000 in prison costs per inmate.

 Michael Rushford of the pro-death-penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento blames the Legislature for not funding appeals adequately. He says lawmakers cede authority on appeals to forces like the California Appellate Project, an outfit that doesn't want the death penalty to work.

 I talked to Justice George on Wednesday, and he told me that he is not happy with the standard five-year delay but that he refuses to appoint "warm bodies" to appeal cases because shoddy work by lawyers only ends up costing everyone. George added that he plans on asking Gov. Schwarzenegger to fund three more positions to speed up the process.

 When he took office, the Governator promised to shake up Sacramento. This would be a good place to start. Making the death penalty work has a law-and-order cachet. It's no nonsense. It would even would help inmates with a righteous appeal so they wouldn't have to wait years to make their case before an appellate judge.

 When the San Mateo County jury found Peterson guilty last month, many scolds were happy to dismiss the people who cheered the verdict as an out-of-control lynch mob. I won't defend the crowd's response, which was boorish. Worse, it fed the anti-death-penalty crowd's conceit that folks are their side are civilized and sophisticated, while death-penalty supporters are barbaric and uncouth.

 Count me in with the pitchfork crowd. I didn't cheer the guilty verdict, but I did respond with a sigh of relief.

 And I know it will be followed by years of waiting for the system to work. I'll be watching death-penalty opponents, who aren't content to persuade voters as to the rightness of their cause. Instead, they resort to any means necessary to undermine a punishment supported by voters, upheld by courts and determined by juries of citizens who sacrificed their time and energy.

 To support spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (of other people's money) on appeals that you know are downright laughable -- that's sophistication. I bow in admiration.