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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

A Cast Of Converts Rallies Around Death Penalty Repeal

Aaron Schrank |
May 8, 2012 | 9:54 p.m. PDT



Ronnie Sandoval once stood in support of the death penalty—until her own son's wrongful conviction changed her views. (Aaron Schrank/Neon Tommy)
Ronnie Sandoval once stood in support of the death penalty—until her own son's wrongful conviction changed her views. (Aaron Schrank/Neon Tommy)
Fourteen years ago, Ronnie Sandoval was a self-proclaimed “Orange County conservative,” a criminal justice student who dreamed of becoming a prosecutor and an ardent supporter of California’s death penalty. 

She believed those facing death sentences were guilty of horrific crimes and had to pay for what they had done. A state-administered fatal drug dose seemed like a fair price.

But Sandoval’s faith in the justice system was shattered when her teenage son, Arthur Carmona, was wrongfully convicted in multiple armed robberies and sentenced to 12 years in prison. It took two years of insisting he was innocent before a court overturned the conviction. 

Her experience advocating for an innocent son behind bars ultimately shook Sandoval’s support of the death penalty. Today, she is among a dedicated group of converts who once championed capital punishment but are now pushing to get rid of California’s death penalty. 

Last month, a measure was approved for the November ballot that would change the maximum penalty imposed from death to life without parole. This year marks the first time voters will get to decide the issue since 1978, when California overwhelmingly approved The Briggs Initiative—expanding the kinds of cases in which defendants could be executed under the reinstated death penalty program.  

The proposition faces an uphill battle in a state where, according to a 2011 Field Poll, two-thirds of voters favor keeping the death penalty for serious crimes. But Californians’ overwhelming support for keeping capital punishment as an option doesn’t mean they think it’s always the best option. 

The same poll shows that given the choice between life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty for first-degree murder, 48 percent of Californians prefer life imprisonment, over 40 percent in support of the death penalty. 

In an effort to persuade pro-death penalty voters to change their minds and end executions in California, the campaign has enlisted a number of former capital punishment supporters. The campaign’s website prominently features the stories of Sandoval and others—some from within the law enforcement community—who have turned to oppose California’s death penalty program.

This strategy is essential in the campaign’s effort to overcome the daunting task of convincing the state’s voters to end capital punishment.

Historically, a ballot initiative needs to start out with strong majority support to find success on Election Day, because support dwindles as an opposition campaign gears up, according to Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Despite the odds, Schnur said the new voices in the campaign could multiply. 

“The campaign’s test is going to rest on its ability to convince people that have supported the death penalty to oppose it,” he said. “The most credible messengers for that type of approach are former supporters.”

In 1977, when California’s death row population was one-third its current size, Donald Heller was a young attorney who’d earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for his tough-on-crime approach as a federal prosecutor. After putting Manson Family follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme away for life for her assassination attempt on former President Gerald Ford, Heller was hired by state Sen. John Briggs, a Republican from Fullerton, to craft a stricter death penalty law. 

The bill he wrote doubled the number of first-degree murder “special circumstances” that could result in execution, adding hate crimes and “especially heinous” murders to the list and removing the state’s requirement to prove that a murder was intentional. Today, California’s death penalty program is the largest and most expensive in the nation—and among Heller’s deepest regrets.  

“As death row filled over the years, I realized I had made a major mistake drafting it the way I did,” Heller said. “The practical application turned out to be a fiscal nightmare.” 

Since then, the number of condemned inmates in San Quentin has swelled to 720. California taxpayers have spent an estimated $4 billion to fund a system that has carried out only 13 executions, according to an analysis conducted by a Loyola Law School professor and federal judge. The study has taken on a central role in the debate over whether to abolish capital punishment.

Heller, 68, speaks out against California’s death penalty and backs the initiative dubbed The Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act. He said his shift to oppose the law he authored was gradual, as its dysfunction became more evident with time.

If there was a tipping point, Heller said, it was the case of Thomas Thompson, a man who was convicted of rape-murder and executed in 1998. After Thompson’s lawyers asked him to review case materials, Heller concluded that Thompson’s conviction was based largely on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, which he considered highly unreliable. At Thompson’s clemency hearing, Heller testified that prosecutors had committed misconduct when they used contradictory arguments to convict Thompson and his accomplice in separate trials.

“That was very frightening to me,” Heller said, “as a lawyer who believed in an ethical system of prosecution.” 

Joining Heller in support of ending the death penalty is Ron Briggs, the son and former aide of the senator who proposed the current statute. While in his early 20s, Briggs was tasked with gathering and processing hundreds of thousands of signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. He was a capital punishment supporter at the time and, like his father, hoped a broadened death penalty would bring California swift justice and savings. 

“I thought the state could line them up and execute them, but that didn’t occur,” Briggs said. “Instead, we’ve got a system that consumes lawyers’ hours and a merry-go-round of appeals for murderers.”

This lengthy appeals process, Briggs says, prolongs suffering for the families and friends of victims. Briggs began to question the process during a retrial of rape-murderer James Karis, Jr. in 2007. Karis had attacked and shot two El Dorado County women in 1981—killing one and leaving the second for dead. The second victim survived to testify against her attacker. Briggs befriended the survivor and said he was heartbroken when she had to testify again 26 years after the ordeal. 

“In the most grotesque public display, she not only had to tell her daughters what happened,” Briggs said, “but she had to relive it, and had to look at the goddam guy in the eyes.”

A staunch conservative member of the rural El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, Briggs says fiscal considerations are among his reasons for shifting position and are likely to resonate with voters in November.

“As a conservative, as a Tea Partier, a Republican or a Democrat, close your eyes for a moment and think about it,” he said. “There’s a state program that costs $184 million a year and nothing gets done.”

Among the initiative’s other supporters is former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who spent a career pursuing the death penalty for convicted killers. While DA in the 1990s, Garcetti said he sought death in 22 percent of the cases where defendants were eligible. 

Garcetti said he never believed capital punishment to be a deterrent to crime and argued its punitive power has diminished over the years, as more inmates die of natural causes on death row. 

One factor in his new perspective, Garcetti said, is the number of cases around the country where convicted murders on death row were found innocent. Since 1973, 138 people have been released from death rows nationwide after evidence showed they were innocent, according the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“With 720 people on California’s death row, there’s likelihood that at least one of them is factually innocent,” Garcetti said. 

Garcetti began advocating against the death penalty when he read recent reports outlining the cost of the program in California.

“It’s culminated with the incredible budget crisis,” Garcetti said. “I see teachers being laid off, yet we’re spending hundreds of millions every year to implement the death penalty.”

The taxpayer costs of maintaining the death penalty in California is a major talking point for the SAFE California campaign, as it aims to shift this year’s debate away from traditional arguments about the morality of execution and focus instead on the cost-effectiveness of the state’s death penalty program. 

The 2011 study by Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell and U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon is crucial to the campaign’s cost claims. The least expensive death penalty trial costs $1.1 million more than the most expensive life without parole trial, the study found. And costs are higher at every step of the process in capital cases, from lengthy appeals to incarceration—resulting in a total cost of $183 million more each year to administer the death penalty than life without parole, according to the study.

The SAFE California Act calls for the money saved by eliminating the death penalty to be used in unsolved rape and murder investigations—$30 million per year for three years.

California’s death penalty supporters say the Loyola report relies too heavily on other studies by groups that oppose capital punishment.

“It’s basically opponents of the death penalty coming out with studies and relying on each other as if earlier reports were definitive,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “But they weren’t. They were advocacy pieces.”

Scheidegger also criticizes the campaign’s use of figures like Heller, Briggs and Garcetti, saying that few capital punishment supporters have changed their views.

“I have worked with a lot of capital case litigators over the years all over the country,” he said. “Not a single one of my acquaintances has ever become an opponent of the death penalty.”

While Scheidegger agreed the system is broken, he said it’s not beyond fixing. 

“I agree that incarcerating people on death row for 20 years is a big expense, but they shouldn’t be there 20 years,” Scheidegger said.

Recent reform attempts have failed to make it past the California State Legislature. Last month, the Senate Public Safety Committee killed two bills proposed by state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) that were designed to streamline the death penalty appeals process.

Scheidegger says the counter-campaign to SAFE California will ask Californians not only to vote to keep the death penalty, but demand that the Legislature fix it.

For Ronnie Sandoval, advocating against the death penalty is a way to make sure the same lapses in the system that caused her son’s ordeal don’t result in the loss of innocent lives. The teenager had been locked away for two years based solely on eyewitness testimony. Sandoval says she dropped out of school to focus on freeing her son, and—with the help of pro bono lawyers and private investigators—uncovered evidence favorable to Carmona. 

Three hours before a court hearing to determine whether Carmona would be granted a retrial, the state offered to vacate Carmona’s armed robbery conviction and set him free if he signed a stipulation that his conviction was not the result of misconduct. 

“I didn’t trust the system, so I forced my son to sign the stipulation,” Sandoval said.

Upon his release, Carmona, then 18, became an advocate for wrongfully convicted criminals with organizations like The Innocence Project.

And then—just after his twenty-sixth birthday—Carmona was killed in a hit-and-run. The driver fled the scene, was arrested several months later and pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter. Again, Sandoval found herself in a courtroom pleading for justice, this time, asking a judge for more time behind bars for her son’s killer. The man was sentenced to six years and paroled in 2011, three years after his arrest.  

Jaded by the justice system and eager to carry on her son’s activism, Sandoval, now an out-of-work paralegal, never did return to school to get her criminal justice degree. 

“None of it really struck home until he was murdered,” Sandoval recalled, gripping a wad of Kleenex. 

“He had always told me: ‘Mom, you know if someone would have died, they could have put me on death row, and you knew I was innocent.’ Well, I know one thing—that I want nothing to do with executing someone that’s innocent.” 


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