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Death Row suicide highlights executions' delays

  • FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2010 file photo is the main entrance way to San Quentin State Prison where the state's death row is located in San Quentin, Calif. Seven years after Scott Peterson was sentenced to death for murdering his pregnant wife Laci, his appeal is moving at lightning speed, at least compared to those of his 725 fellow California Death Row inmates. Appealing the death penalty in California can take two decades, meaning that condemned prisoners are more likely to die behind bars of natural causes than be executed. Now voters in California get an opportunity this November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SAN FRANCISCO — When James Lee Crummel hanged himself in his San Quentin Prison cell last month, he had been living on Death Row for almost eight years — and he was still years away from facing the executioner.

California's automatic death penalty appeals take so long that the state's 723 condemned inmates are more likely to die of old age and infirmities —or kill themselves — than be put to death.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, California has executed 13 inmates, and none since 2006. But 20 have committed suicide, including Crummel, who abducted, sexually abused and killed a 13-year-old boy on his way to school in 1979. Another 57 inmates have died of natural causes. The ponderous pace of this process has helped make the state's death row the most populous in the nation, and it has generated critics from all quarters.

Victim rights groups say the delays amount to justice denied. Death penalty opponents say the process, like execution itself, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

And now the state's voters will get an opportunity this November to vote on a measure that would abolish the death penalty, which critics deride as an inefficient and expensive system for a financially troubled state.


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