Inside San Quentin's death row with North Bay's condemned prisoners
One of the most notorious criminals in North Coast history sits at the back of a darkened prison cell, his broad silhouette illuminated by the light of a TV screen.
Richard Allen Davis is on San Quentin’s death row, his home for the last 20 years. He’s in cell No. 54 in the infamous East Block, a crumbling granite edifice on San Francisco Bay where a majority of the state’s 747 condemned prisoners live.
Davis, who kidnapped, raped and murdered 12-year-old Petaluma girl Polly Klaas in 1993, doesn’t leave his closet-sized space except to shower or see a doctor.
During a rare media tour of death row this week, Davis, now 62, whose horrendous record of crimes fueled support for the state’s three strikes law, hung towels in his cell for privacy, turned his back on requests for interviews and kept his eyes on the small, flat screen tuned to a local station.
“He’s pretty solitary,” said Lt. Sam Robinson, a longtime death row correctional officer who is now San Quentin’s spokesman.
The visit by news outlets comes at a critical time.
California’s death row population has skyrocketed since executions were halted in 2006 when a court ruled the lethal injection process could cause undue suffering. It is now the largest in the nation, eclipsing those in the death penalty strongholds of Florida and Texas.
As officials retool procedures to comply with legal requirements, two competing November ballot measures are poised to further alter the landscape. Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty altogether, replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole. It would apply retroactively to all prisoners sentenced to death. A similar measure was defeated in 2012 by a 52-48 percent margin.
The other measure, Proposition 66, would speed up executions by limiting legal challenges blamed for extending the average stay on death row to more than 25 years.
Both measures claim annual taxpayer savings of tens of millions of dollars.
Marc Klaas, who has waited more than two decades for the execution of his daughter’s killer, said he hopes voters will agree there needs to be a swift and severe penalty for committing the ultimate crime.
“These are people who kill cops and children ... serial killers,” said Klaas, now president of the Sausalito-based Klaas Kids Foundation. “They’re terrible people. And they deserve to be in hell.”
But death penalty opponents argue the potential for executing a wrongfully convicted person is too great. Proposition 62 also requires inmates serving life behind bars to work to pay back victims.
“The finality of the death penalty makes it impossible to be assured that innocent people will not be killed by the state,” said Steve Fabian, a Santa Rosa defense lawyer and past board member for ACLU of Sonoma County.
As the election approaches, inmates are taking notice. Most on death row who agreed to be interviewed welcome repeal but a few are skeptical of its benefits. At East Block, in drafty cells stacked five stories high, about 500 condemned men eat, sleep and watch TV behind steel bars. Their voices echo off the walls as rifle-toting guards keep watch through strands of twisting razor wire.
Petaluma-born serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, 54, sentenced to death in 2006 after turning himself in to Humboldt County deputies with a woman’s severed breast in his pocket, paced his cramped East Block quarters strumming an acoustic guitar.
Like many, Ford said he hopes voters will spare him in a way he did not afford his three victims, all women. But faced with the prospect of serving life at San Quentin, he’d just as soon die.
“I’d rather be executed than stay here,” said Ford over the din of inmates shouting exercise cadences in unison in the block next door. “It sucks.”
Still others want to go on living, even in prison. Troy Ashmus, who 32 years ago raped a 7-year-old Sacramento girl and killed her by shoving wadded-up plastic bags down her throat, said he once believed in the death penalty. But that was before he had a daughter and grandchildren of his own.
“I’ve made my peace with God,” said Ashmus, 54, as he worked on crafts inside his cell. “Now it’s all about the family.”
By some accounts, conditions on death row have improved since completion of a massive cleanup in 2009 sparked by an inmate lawsuit. Water no longer cascades off the tiers and cells aren’t strewn with pigeon and rodent feces.
But the court-mandated suspension of executions has added another problem - more condemned inmates. In the past 10 years, the death row population has jumped by about 100 inmates as counties continue to sentence people for committing the most heinous crimes.