Prop. 34 latest attempt to abolish Calif. death penalty

Oct. 25, 2012

By Dave Roberts

On May 1, 1992, Eric Houston, 20, strode into Lindhurst High School in Yuba County with a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle. He shot and killed a teacher and three students, wounded 10 others and held 80 students hostage before surrendering after police promised he would serve no more than five years in a minimum security prison.

Houston went on the rampage because he was angry that a teacher (the one that he killed) had flunked him in an economics course, resulting in his flunking out of high school and subsequently becoming unemployed. At his trial, he said he “did not see a value in his execution but felt a fair punishment would be whatever the victims’ families wanted,” according to court documents.

Houston was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Outside the courthouse, Mary Stickle, whose son Jason White was killed by Houston, told the Sacramento Bee that she would attend Houston’s execution. “[Houston] did not give our kids a chance to do any living,” she said.

Since then, Houston has received free room, board, medical care and educational, recreational and entertainment benefits on San Quentin’s Death Row.

Eight and a half years after the murders, on Nov. 6, 2000, Stickle wrote the following on a commemorative website: “Jason was a hero to many, many classmates, friends, and family. He loved life, lived it to the fullest, and had so many plans. Eric Houston is on death row in San Quentin, California. He has never had an appeal hearing there, never had a court date, and will probably outlive me and my family there. The justice system moves very slowly. It has been 8 long, lonely years since my child has been gone. He was only 19. I love him and miss him everyday.”

Eighteen years after the murders, Houston began looking for pen pals. On his website, he wrote: “My hobbies are reading good books, good music (alternative Music I like: ‘Arcade Fire,’ ‘M.I.A.’ and Love ‘Yaha- Yaha- Yaha’ssss) World History, ancient cultures, travel and reading about places (like Area 51). Reading about NASA and Space travel and News items. Also I love exercising and jogging. I am looking for open-minded penpals. I am 38 years young. A guy who loves laughing and I am a layed [sic] back person with a good smile. I am currently on Death row in San Quentin. I am looking forward to hearing from you! ~Eric Houston.”

Appeals

Twenty years and three months after the murders, on Aug. 1, 2012, Houston’s first of what could be many appeals was rejected by the state Supreme Court. The appeal alleged numerous procedural technicalities: failure to maintain a record of the entire grand jury proceedings, failure to provide requested evidence, under-representation of minorities on the grand jury, failure to administer the oath to prospective jurors, etc. It also argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled against all of it, declaring that Houston’s trial had been fair, and affirming the constitutionality of the death penalty. Houston’s appeals will likely continue in other courts, taking many more years, perhaps decades, to play out.

Twenty years, four months and 17 days after the murders, on Sept. 18, 2012, Mary Stickle spoke at a joint legislative informational hearing on the pros and cons of Proposition 34, which seeks to abolish the death penalty. The three-hour hearing provided numerous arguments, pro and con, by advocates, experts and family members of murder victims. The main argument on the pro-34 side is that California’s death penalty process has become too cumbersome and expensive.

The system

Here is what Stickle said after informing the committee of her son’s murder by Houston:

“People speak about a system being broken, so you’re going to throw it away like you would a piece of candy or a glass. My child was not a glass. His life meant something to me. He was alive 20 years ago. Eric Houston is alive today on Death Row. He’s allowed to do Facebook. If you Google his name, he’ll even ask you to be his pen pal. I take great offense to that. I take great offense to the great state of California allowing this to happen for 20 years, when he’s taken the lives of the people that he killed. He also ruined the life of a student he shot three times in the head who lived. He also destroyed a whole community who can no longer allow their children to go to school and feel safe.

“We just had [Houston’s] first appeal in May because they couldn’t find an attorney for 15 years. Give me a flipping break. That is absolutely too long, and I take great offense to that. Think about your children. If you allow Houston to go with life without possibility of parole, couldn’t he take a wife? My son couldn’t. Do what’s right. Look in your heart. If your child was taken away from you today, and you had to stand before millions of people to beg to think about your feeling for one day. Where’s the justice?”

Since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated in California, about 900 murderers have been sentenced to death, according to legislative analyst Brian Brown. Only 14 have been executed. Eighty-four died prior to execution and about 75 had their sentences reduced. Currently there are about 729 murderers on Death Row. Most are still going through the appellate process in either the state Supreme Court or state and federal habeas corpus courts.

$130 million

It costs the state about $130 million more annually to house prisoners on Death Row and pay for their appeals than for prisoners in the general prison population.

Everyone agrees that the system is broken. The disagreement is on the solution.

Prop. 34 backers argue that the $130 million would be better spent on law enforcement. Replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole would also ensure that no innocent person is put to death. The most persuasive speaker against the death penalty was Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin. She said:

I’m here because I’ve witnessed the death penalty from many sides. I know it’s a policy that California cannot afford to keep. I began working at San Quentin in 1978. When I started, there were six inmates on Death Row. So I watched Death Row grow as I was promoted through the ranks to where we are today with 729 people on Death Row in the state of California. The largest Death Row in the nation. Having spent over 26 years in San Quentin and carried out four executions, I have watched the death penalty grow out of control, growing so large, expensive and dysfunctional that I came to the only logical conclusion: California’s death penalty is broken beyond repair.

“We are facing a serious public safety gap in California. Forty-six percent of murders and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved on average each year in the state. Hundreds of murderers and rapists are on our streets because the money to pay for investigations and apprehend criminals and even prevent violence is not there — it’s on Death Row. I would rather we redirect our tax dollars to solving more rapes and murders, which will make our communities safer for our children.”

Removing fear

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, representing California State Sheriffs Association, countered that eliminating the death penalty would actually harm public safety by removing a would-be killer’s fear that he could lose his own life if he takes someone else’s life. He said:

“I’ve seen California’s recent push to reduce or eliminate consequences for offenders in prison realignment, in the early release of prisoners, in the virtual elimination of post-release supervision. It has had a tremendous and certain [negative] impact on the citizen safety of California. And eliminating capital punishment would add to that. The result would be that offenders now with nothing to lose would increase their criminality, kill their victims, both adult and children, and increase the assaults, killing of officers and correctional officers. Just last month in San Quentin, a Death Row inmate convicted on three counts of first degree murder and the attempted murder of four others, stabbed two correctional officers in the neck because he himself had nothing to lose.

“The death penalty currently is not used lightly or often. Rather, it is reserved for the most heinous, the most horrific, the most violent, the most premeditated murders: cop killers, child rapists and murderers, serial and mass killers. Proposition 34 seeks to eliminate a tool that is being used judiciously and with the review and consent of juries who deliberate carefully and determine that a death sentence is the appropriate sanction. Prosecutors do not take this charging decision lightly, and they do not play games with the judicial system.

“Sadly, the proponents of Proposition 34 do. They have burdened the system with a flood of appeals and other measures designed not to promote justice, but to promote an agenda. The supporters of this initiative point to delays and costs — and they themselves have caused both. California’s law enforcement community from labor to management to executives is not willing to give up on justice. We are not willing to concede that the system is broke beyond compare. Proposition 34 would create more victims, cause more peace officers and correctional officers to be assaulted and killed, and will allow the most heinous of criminals to avoid the sanction that they have so justly earned.”

The vote on Prop. 34 is likely to be close, but indications are that it may lose. A Sept. 25 Field poll showed that 42 percent support repealing the death penalty, while 45 percent want to keep it. An Oct. 11 California Business Roundtable poll found 43 percent support for Prop. 34, while 48 percent were are opposed.

19 comments

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  1. Rick
    Rick 25 October, 2012, 10:49

    It is time to look at what other states have done to speed up the process from conviction to execution.
    I heard a news report the other day about a group of California inmates that signed a letter in favor of the death penalty. Why, because once some criminal is in for life they would have nothing to lose by killing their fellow inmates.
    The death penalty needs to be fixed not stopped.

    Reply this comment
  2. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 25 October, 2012, 11:04

    The death penalty is broken.

    Is it appropriate in specific cases, hell yes, but that is not the problem, the problem is 1) it is applied in an inconsisant manner, differetnly against rich and poor (OJ Simpson is the perfect example), and 2) also from county to county, some counties NEVER seek a death penalty case.

    Last the appeals process is needed to make sure we geti it right, and the quality of representation on a DP appeal is horrendous.

    Reply this comment
  3. us citizen
    us citizen 25 October, 2012, 12:23

    Its pretty easy. Someone sees you do a horrendous crime…..You die, period…..nuff said. No, ifs, and’s or but’s. You’re caught on camera, you die.

    What is the big deal.

    You commit a crime, you’ve got 5 years to get any evidence saying other wise. If not, you die.

    Saves tons of money. Plus, you don’t get a computer, tv, or whatever other perks there are. You are in prison, for God’s sake, not some country club.

    The moral of the story is………don’t do anything that will kill you.

    Reply this comment
  4. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 25 October, 2012, 12:33

    Someone sees you do a horrendous crime…..You die, period…..nuff said. No, ifs, and’s or but’s. You’re caught on camera, you die.
    ==
    What happens if the person is a lair, and is in fact lying????There are very few murders caught on camera……

    Reply this comment
  5. Hondo
    Hondo 25 October, 2012, 12:45

    The solution is to not ask for the death penalty except in super rare cases. It should stay on the books but the opponent of it have clogged the system with idiotic appeal after appeal, all paid by the taxpayer. I support the penalty but accept it has been rendered unusable.
    Hondo……

    Reply this comment
  6. us citizen
    us citizen 25 October, 2012, 18:30

    Seems to me that people with cell phones catch a lot of stuff now. Also you still would have to have a trial……..not just depending on one testimony.

    You commit a horrendous crime……..you die.

    Reply this comment
  7. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 25 October, 2012, 20:51

    I agree, you do a horrendos crime, like Manson, Hillside killer, Ted bundy….the problem is far beyond that statement though.

    Reply this comment
  8. Sean Morham
    Sean Morham 26 October, 2012, 11:00

    Dont go down the path of abolishing the death penalty. Then, the next target will be life sentences. Eric Houston should die a slow, agonizing death. Pull out his finegermails and toe nails with pliers; burn out his eyes with a blowtorch, and finally cover his genitals with dogfood and let Pit Bulls consume him. If he is still alive, fry him in oil; let the dogs fight over his bones. Post this on your Facebook page…

    Reply this comment
  9. Phyllis Loya
    Phyllis Loya 26 October, 2012, 12:16

    One of the most ironic arguments the death penalty opponents make is that death row inmates have too many privileges and are coddled but this law would change that and make them work. These same folks filed suits to get most of those privileges. I would be happy to take away their single cells, televisions, limit their visits, and access to internet web sites where they can troll for pen pals and potential patsies. However, if I did that Natasha Pinsker and her ACLU buddies would be filing a lawsuit the next day. By the way, the law about inmates working has been on the books for many years and Prop 34 adds nothing to it.

    The people that caused the delays and upped the costs are the ones who are now arguing its too expensive and we should end it. The death penalty needs amending, not ending.

    Only two percent of the murderers incarcerated in California are on death row because the penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. Only one percent of the annual budget for corrections is used for death row inmates.

    Reply this comment
  10. Phyllis Loya
    Phyllis Loya 26 October, 2012, 12:19

    Even anti death penalty Gov. Jerry Brown admits there is no proof that an innocent person has ever been executed in California. Joseph Brown, a man that has made a living going around the country saying he was 17 hours shy of execution in Florida and then exonerated, has been recently arrested for the murder of his wife in North Carolina on Sept. 13th. The far greater and realistic danger is what past experience has shown us: released killers kill again. Gov Pat Brown commuted sentences of three men who had been on death row …they each killed innocent victims after their release. Death row inmates also kill other death row inmates. California have two such inmates that received a second death sentence for their prison murders. A few months ago two San Quentin correctional officers were stabbed by a death row inmate with a prison made shank. They were lucky and survived. His next victim may not be so lucky.

    Reply this comment
  11. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 26 October, 2012, 20:32

    “Joseph Brown, a man that has made a living going around the country saying he was 17 hours shy of execution in Florida and then exonerated, has been recently arrested for the murder of his wife in North Carolina on Sept. 13th. ”

    ==
    Do you have factual support for this comment????

    “The far greater and realistic danger is what past experience has shown us: released killers kill again. Gov Pat Brown commuted sentences of three men who had been on death row …they each killed innocent victims after their release.”
    ==
    Again, do you have FACTUAL support for this statement.

    Prop 34 is LIFE W/O PAROLE……..you need to understand that, NO PAROLE.

    Reply this comment
  12. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 26 October, 2012, 20:33

    The people that caused the delays and upped the costs are the ones who are now arguing its too expensive and we should end it.
    ==
    the COURTS are those “people” and the courts have nothing to do with the 34 argument.

    Reply this comment
  13. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 28 October, 2012, 08:29

    A society that is compassionate when it should be cruel will be cruel when it should be compassionate.

    – The Midrash.

    Reply this comment
  14. BobA
    BobA 28 October, 2012, 08:33

    Rex:

    As someone has already mentioned, the same people who argue against the death penalty will eventually argue against life sentences. Then when they win that argument they will eventually push to have no prison sentence no longer than say 5 years.

    If 5 years is the maximum sentence you can get for murder then think of what the sentence will be for rape or robbery. 1 year? 6 months? After all, no body “died” and only their feelings got hurt. We could place such offenders in home detention and require that they report in to their “psychologist” once a month. Think of all that money we could save if there were no prisons.

    When all is said and done, being a criminal will be deemed an honorable profession and getting caught will be just an occupational hazard.

    After all, wall street bankers and politicians are more or less criminals too but their professions are deemed honorable and respectable. Their lying, cheating and stealing is no different than the crimes of any other type of criminal so why the discrimination?

    Reply this comment
  15. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 28 October, 2012, 17:10

    BOB A—- Move to the head of the class— exactly correct!

    Reply this comment
  16. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 28 October, 2012, 20:07

    As someone has already mentioned, the same people who argue against the death penalty will eventually argue against life sentences. Then when they win that argument they will eventually push to have no prison sentence no longer than say 5 years.
    ==
    Says who-you Bob? Baloney.

    Life w/o parole means life w/o parole. Claiming that will be changed-contrary- is just deflection.

    Reply this comment
  17. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 28 October, 2012, 20:08

    A society that is compassionate when it should be cruel will be cruel when it should be compassionate.

    – The Midrash.
    ==
    Teddy the Dork will always be Teddy the Dork.

    -The Wonder Dog 😉

    Reply this comment
  18. BobA
    BobA 29 October, 2012, 08:10

    Rex:

    You can not take what I said and extrapolate to reach that conclusion. Quite the contrary, my comment does not even speak to the issue you are alleging.

    I’m only pointing out how certain groups are becoming soft on crime and where that mentality will eventually lead if it is allowed to persist and gain traction.

    There’s an inverse relationship between crime and punishment. Unfortunately, in America, we seem to have forgotten that fact. Criminality has flourished in America because we have become too lenient towards criminal behavior and life without parole is no substitute for being intolerant of criminal behavior.

    Reply this comment
  19. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 29 October, 2012, 11:19

    Wel said Boba—- the moral constituency always flow from the dead and vanished victims to the present defendants who all the hand wringer useful idiots concentrate their concern and worry on. Same old deal– Anyone who thinks LWOP means LWOP is clueless.

    Reply this comment

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