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California Death Penalty an Empty Threat, Legal Experts Say

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By Kamika Dunlap on November 11, 2009 1:15 PM

Maybe a death sentence isn't so bad for the more than six hundred California inmates facing capital punishment.

The state not only has the nation's largest death row population but a wait list with long delays. The appeals process can last decades.

White supremacist gang hit man Billy Joe Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder last month.

Legal analysts say as one of California newest prisoners, Johnson's request for a death sentence highlights how delays in executions could undermine any deterrent effect of  the California death penalty.

A recent Los Angeles Times article, examines how executions have been on hold in California for almost four years, following a federal judge's orders for review and reform of lethal injection procedures.

Those orders came after concerns were raised that some of those executed by the three-shot lethal injection sequence might not have been rendered unconscious by the first injection. Some argued inmates could be exposed to pain from the final shot, resulting in unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

Last month's botched execution in Ohio also has triggered debate in multiple states over whether alternative approaches to lethal injection should be considered. In that case, the death row inmate was stuck 18 times with a needle, including once inadvertently in a bone near his ankle, causing him to cry out in pain, according to court documents.

Of California's 685 sentenced to die by lethal injection, only 13 executions have been carried out since capital punishment resumed in 1977. Comaparitively, five times as many death row inmates -- 71 -- have died over that same period of natural causes, suicide or prison violence.

Although death row inmates don't get V.I.P. treatment, they have about the only private accommodations in the state's 33-prison network, which is crammed with 160,000-plus convicts.

Their privileges also include personal property inside their cells, exclusive control over the television, CD player or other diversions in their cells and better access to telephones.

According to the corrections department statistics, it costs the state about $49,000 a year to house each prisoner. It also cost taxpayers and extra $138,000 per death row prisoner each year for security and legal spending.

Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor now teaching criminal law at Loyola Law School said convicts seeking the death probably don't feel they're making a life-and-death decision.

"We have a perverse system, given that we have a death row but we don't really have executions," she said.

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