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Inside San Quentin's death row with North Bay's condemned prisoners

North Coast killers on death row

SONOMA COUNTY

Robert Scully

Age: 58

Year arrived: 1997

Crime: Murdered Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Frank Trejo

Richard Allen Davis

Age: 62

Year arrived: 1996

Crime: Murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas

Ramon Salcido

Age: 55

Year arrived: 1990

Crime: Murdered seven people, including his wife and two daughters

LAKE COUNTY

Jerrold Johnson

Age: 54

Year arrived: 2000

Crime: Home invasion-murder of 76-year-old Ellen Salling

Gerald Stanley

Age: 71

Year Arrived: 1984

Crime: Convicted of killing two of his wives

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.

North Coast killers on death row

SONOMA COUNTY

Robert Scully

Age: 58

Year arrived: 1997

Crime: Murdered Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Frank Trejo

Richard Allen Davis

Age: 62

Year arrived: 1996

Crime: Murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas

Ramon Salcido

Age: 55

Year arrived: 1990

Crime: Murdered seven people, including his wife and two daughters

LAKE COUNTY

Jerrold Johnson

Age: 54

Year arrived: 2000

Crime: Home invasion-murder of 76-year-old Ellen Salling

Gerald Stanley

Age: 71

Year Arrived: 1984

Crime: Convicted of killing two of his wives

Prison officials have responded by expanding death row into five separate blocks including the so-called Adjustment Center, for inmates with security or disciplinary problems, and North Segregation, the original 1934 death row adjacent to the old death chamber, where the best-behaved inmates are housed. There, the words “Condemned Row” are painted above the entrance in medieval script.

Among those inside is Scott Peterson, 43, who killed his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, in 2002 and disposed of her body in San Francisco Bay after severing her head and limbs. He stood in the back of a locked common area where other inmates mingled freely and did not make himself available for questions.

Outside the common area, a Mickey Mouse clock hung on the wall. The motto for Disneyland - “The happiest place on Earth” - was scrawled beneath it.

“It’s all about perspective,” Robinson said with a smile.

The 20-year correctional officer, on death row during at least the last three executions, keeps up a mostly friendly exchange with inmates. They greeted him with shouts of “What’s up, LT?” and “Yo, Robbie!” as he walked past a row of cells.

Robinson said guards develop a kind of camaraderie with condemned men after spending many years and long hours together. They joke and share personal stories.

But Robinson said guards have no illusions about safety. Any death row inmate would try to maim him if he had the chance. It’s their obligation under an inmates’ code, he said.

Early in his career, an inmate affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood gang spelled it out for him.

“He said, ‘You’re a good guy, but if I ever get these cuffs off I’m going to kill you,’?” said Robinson.

Robinson led the media group to the fourth-floor psychiatric unit with commanding views of the main prison yard, San Pablo Bay and Mt. Tamalpais. The group also swung by an outdoor recreation area where a condemned inmate showered naked in open view.

“Move on, Robinson!” a prisoner shouted. “Take your freak show out of here!”

James Alvin Thompson, who killed a developmentally disabled man in Riverside County in 1991, sat at a metal table with a Bible and bar of soap. The 64-year-old inmate said he’s been fighting his conviction ever since he was sentenced to death in 1996.

He said the death penalty, which has cost California $4 billion since it was reinstated in 1978, is a “big scam on taxpayers.”

“It’s job security for police and judges and prison guards,” Thompson said.

The 102 most dangerous death row inmates are in the Adjustment Center, a faded, white three-story building with solid cell doors to prevent “gassing” where inmates hurl urine or feces at guards.

Reporters filed through wearing stab-proof vests and face masks. Inmate Darrell Lomax, 46, on death row for gunning down a Long Beach liquor store clerk during a 1994 robbery, shouted through a vent that he’s an innocent man.

His bed was piled with legal papers for his ongoing appeal. The state Supreme Court has affirmed his conviction and punishment, but a federal judge stayed his execution in 2011 so he could pursue a writ of habeas corpus to overturn one or both.

Lomax, who is black, cites statistics showing a disproportionate number of minorities are sentenced to death. Blacks make up 36 percent of death row inmates but only about 7 percent of the state population.

“For me, it’s a living hell,” Lomax said. “I’m not afraid of dying, but I don’t deserve to be here.”

Witnesses said Lomax shot clerk Nasser Akbar with a semiautomatic pistol after the Iranian father of two handed over $68. Lomax reached over the counter and fired two more times at the fallen man before shooting out a security camera.

Three times a week, the worst of the worst leave their cells for individual steel cages in an open-air exercise yard. There’s not much room, but they take advantage of the sessions, doing pushups or soaking up morning sun as guards look on.

San Francisco native Joey Perez Jr., 45, stretched out, flexing his tattooed forearms, with one that read “Ghetto child.” Eighteen years ago, he and a friend hopped a BART train to the Contra Costa County city of Lafayette, where they strangled a housewife during a botched home-invasion robbery.

Perez has appealed his conviction. If it fails, he said he hoped to be executed before he becomes “a decrepit old man, walking the yard.”

“F--- that!” Perez said. “If I have to die in prison, let’s get it over with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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