Proposition 34: Why I’m for the Death Penalty
I’ve waited most of my adult life to cast a vote against the death penalty. On Nov. 6, I’ll finally get my chance with Proposition 34, the Death Penalty Initiative Statute. If passed by a majority of voters, capital punishment will be replaced by life in prison without parole for the state’s most heinous offenders. These same criminals will be forced to work to pay restitution to the family members of victims and to the state. As an ardent death penalty opponent, I’ve supported just such a solution for years.
So here’s my problem: I’m no longer against the death penalty. I have come to the conclusion that some human beings are beyond redemption. It has not been an easy decision to reach.
I witnessed an execution once. The convicted murderer’s name was Richard Allen Moran.
In 1984, while in a cocaine- and alcohol-induced blackout, Moran shot and killed a bartender and a cook in a Las Vegas tavern. Nine days later, he shot and killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself, shooting himself in the stomach. He survived and was sentenced to death. In 1996, Moran was executed by lethal injection at Nevada State Prison in Carson City, while I and 40 other witnesses watched from behind the execution chamber’s glass viewing windows.
It was surprisingly easy watching a man die. Moran was heavily sedated before ever entering the chamber, he offered no resistance when the guards positioned him on the hospital gurney soon to be his deathbed. The injection process began. After about 30 seconds Moran’s stomach fluttered gently, and shortly afterward a prison official pronounced him dead. Only one person, a family member of one of the victims, cheered. It was that simple.
It bothered me that it was that simple. When the state kills a man, it seemed to me, it should be some sort of Grand Guignol spectacle, with a snapping neck or a body riddled with bullet holes or a ride in Ol Sparky, with the accompanying smell of ozone and burnt flesh. Something to be taken seriously. Lethal injection has turned capital punishment into a medical procedure.
However, the simplicity of Richard Allen Moran’s death was not what bothered me the most about his execution. What bothered me most was his willingness to die. In an exclusive interview with the local Associated Press reporter before his execution, Moran explained how he’d been filled with remorse since waking up in the hospital 12 years after his crimes and his attempted suicide. Although his federal appeals had not been exhausted, he chose to abandon the case. A lapsed Catholic who rediscovered religion in prison, he claimed he wasn’t committing suicide. But that’s what he did, with the state’s assistance.
That’s when I began to suspect that for many men (and a very few violent female offenders) capital punishment is a way out, a delayed version of suicide-by-cop, a means of escaping the torment of their own guilt and their own life experience. As the criminologist Lonny Atkins has documented, many if not most violent offenders have life histories so brutal and alien to average people that it’s impossible to imagine ourselves in their shoes.
As a journalist, I have sought out violent criminals who fit Atkins’ profile. One of the first I interviewed was David Scott Daniels, a former Sacramento resident currently residing on San Quentin’s Death Row.
Daniels is a longtime drug addict who was raised in San Francisco by a prostitute mother on the streets of Hunter’s Point, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. After acquiring two strikes (the three strikes law came into effect while he was prison) he was released in 1995. He got a job and stayed sober several months, but then began using crack cocaine again and stopped showing up for work.
Instead, he started robbing banks and convenience stores, doing massive amounts of cocaine, and hanging out with hookers. It all ended after just three months with Daniels shooting a man in the head during a drug deal, then killing a Sutter Health nurse after he ran her off the road in a high-speed car chase with police in south Sacramento. Police surrounded his car, an officer approached Daniels, and Daniels shot the officer with a Tec-9. The surrounding officers opened fire, hitting Daniels 16 times.
The officer who Daniels shot was saved by his bulletproof vest and his badge, which caught the bullet fired at him. Daniels spent the next two weeks at UC Davis Medical Center unconscious and near death.
Six of the bullets were still in Daniels when I interviewed him at the Sacramento County Jail. The first thing he told me was that the worst moment in his life was when he woke up in the hospital and discovered he was still alive. He knew that once he started using drugs again, it was only a matter of time before he went back to prison for his third strike, on a 25-to-life term. He had made is mind up not to go back to prison. He was going out to go out in a blaze of glory.
He had attempted committing suicide, and having failed that, he refused to defend himself in court, even though a good defense attorney could have, with some effort, saved him from the death penalty. He wanted to die, and that’s what he got, a fast track straight to Death Row.
However, unlike Texas, California is in no great hurry to execute its 725 Death Row inmates. You’re more likely to die of old age or suicide than lethal injection on Death Row. Just 13 inmates have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Since Clarence Ray Allen’s execution in 2006, there has been a moratorium while courts try to determine if California’s method of lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.
At the present rate of execution, David Scott Daniels will die of old age. What is more cruel and unusual, I wonder: Killing a criminal like Daniels who wants to die, or allowing him to live behind bars for the rest of his natural life? I think in his case being allowed to live is more cruel and unusual than executing him, but I also feel it is the more just punishment. Why shouldn’t Daniels spend the rest of his life in prison cursing himself for his own heinous stupidity?
What makes a person capable of such violent acts? The case of James Karis proved to be highly revealing. In 1981, the violent ex-con on parole, who appeared to be adjusting to civilian life, abducted two Placerville women and drove them to a secluded area just outside of town. He raped one of them and shot both in the back of the head, leaving them for dead. One of them survived, and he was quickly captured and sentenced to death.
In 2007, Sacramento attorney Michael Bigelow handled Karis’ federal appeal. He exhaustively researched his client’s past, and discovered patterns of severe mental and physical abuse in his family history that stretched back four generations. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to make a killer, and the sustained beatings and humiliation dealt to Karis as a child had everything to do with who he became. There were enough mitigating circumstances to at least reduce his death sentence to life in prison without parole.
But at the last minute, Karis backed out of the appeals process. According to Bigelow, who was occasionally in tears when I interviewed him, Karis didn’t have the stomach to go through the catalog of abuses he endured as a child that would have been presented in court during trial.
So Karis is back on Death Row, where he’ll probably die of old age. I’ve got no problem with that. It’s unclear how much remorse Karis feels, or if he is capable of feeling anything other than pain caused by the abuse he suffered as a child. He looks like a man dying of infinite sadness. Prison is the only place for him. He’s a broken machine. The same can be said for David Scott Daniels and the late Richard Allen Moran.
It cannot be said about San Quentin Death Row inmate Randy Kraft.
Randy Kraft grew up in a typical Orange County family where by all accounts he was well-loved and well-treated. The major hardship he faced in his young life was coming out as a gay man during his late teens, which wasn’t easy in the early 1960s,. Kraft eventually adapted to the gay lifestyle, and became a prominent member in the Long Beach gay community during the 1970s. None of his lovers or friends suspected he was a cold-blooded serial killer praying on young male hitchhikers.
The definitive work on Kraft is LA Times reporter Dennis McDougal’s “Angel of Darkness.” Beginning in the late 1970s and extending into the late 1980s, bodies of young men began appearing on freeway offramps and on the sides of roads throughout the Los Angeles area. The crimes weren’t solved until 1983, when Kraft was pulled over by police for driving erratically. His latest victim was lying dead in the passenger seat.
Kraft killed as many as 65 people, all of them men, most of them in Southern California. His method of operation was always the same: pick up a hitchhiking guy, usually a marine, a sailor or a runaway, feed him a mix of alcohol and sedatives, then rape and sexually mutilate him while he was still alive. After having his fun, he strangled the victims, and the bodies usually appeared on a freeway offramp, tossed out of his car traveling at high speed, mutilating the corpses even further.
Here’s what freaks me out about Randy Kraft: I served in the Navy between 1978 and 1982, and while stationed in San Diego, I often hitchhiked to Los Angeles, on the very same highways and at the very same time Kraft was trolling for his victims, who were often marines or sailors hitchhiking along the highway, looking to party. If Kraft had picked me up, I would have undoubtedly accepted the beer he would have offered, along with the Valium.
I could have been a victim, and before reading about the Kraft case, that had never occurred to me before. It has completely changed my perspective on the death penalty.
I wrote Kraft in San Quentin hoping to strike up a correspondence on the subject. He never responded. That’s not unusual. Since his conviction in 1989, he has maintained his innocence, and after spending the past 23 years on Death Row, the 67-year-old prisoner isn’t about to give up information to a journalist. As recently as last year, he refused to assist in an NCIS investigation after a body of one of his marine victims turned up. Kraft will take his secrets to the grave, and he has made no secret of the fact that he plans to live a long time, even if it is behind bars.
The only thing we can do is hasten Randy Kraft’s exit. Not every Death Row inmate deserves the ultimate punishment, and the courts can sort that out. But I believe Kraft, and other sociopaths like him, should be strapped down and slipped the needle as soon as possible. Some people are beyond redemption. There is no cure for Randy Kraft. That’s why on Nov. 6, I’ll be voting no on Proposition 34.