lay in wait

Capital punishment in California

Capital punishment is a legal form of punishment in the U.S. state of California. The first recorded execution in the area that is now California was on April 11, 1778 when four Native Americans were shot in San Diego County for conspiracy to commit murder. These were the first of 709 executions before the Furman v. Georgia decision of the United States Supreme Court. Since 1976, 13 people have been executed by the state. As of October 21, 2007 there are 667 people on "Death Row".


Four methods have been used historically for executions. Up until just before California was admitted into the Union, executions were carried by firing squad. Then in 1849, hanging was adopted as the method of choice (except for two Native Americans shot in December 1851 and January 1852).

The penal code was modified on February 14, 1872 to state that hangings were to take place inside the confines of the county jail or other private places. The only people allowed to be present were the sheriff of the county, a physician, the District Attorney of the county, who would select at least 12 "reputable citizens". No more than two "ministers of the gospel" and no more than five people selected by the condemned could also be present.

Executions were moved to the state level in 1889 when the law was modified so that hangings would take place in at one of the State Prisons — San Quentin State Prison and Folsom State Prison. According to the California Department of Corrections, although there was no law providing which prison was chosen by the trial judge, it was customary for recidivists to be sent to Folsom. Under these new laws, the first execution at San Quentin was Jose Gabriel on March 3, 1893 for murder. The first hanging at Folsom was Han Chin also for murder on December 13, 1895. A total of 215 inmates were hanged at San Quentin and a total of 92 were hanged at Folsom.

California adopted the gas chamber as its sole method in 1937 (though two more hangings took place for people already sentenced). The first people to die in the San Quentin gas chamber (the only one in the state) were Albert Kessell and Robert Cannon on December 2, 1938. Three more people had their death sentences carried out within a fortnight. Up until 1967, 194 people were executed by lethal gas, including four women. The last person was Aaron Mitchell on April 12, 1967.

The Supreme Court of California ruled in People v. Anderson that the current death penalty laws were unconstitutional and oversaw the commutting of 107 death sentences in the state in 1972. This included such people as Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson. Following the ruling, the California Constitution was modified. The statute was also modified to make the death penalty mandatory for a number of crimes including first degree murder in specific instances, kidnapping where a person dies, train wrecking where a person dies, treason against the state, and assault by a life prisoner if the victim dies within a year.

In a later decision in 1976, the Supreme Court of California again held the death penalty statute was unconstitutional as it did not allow the defendant to enter mitigating evidence. A further 70 prisoners had their sentences commutted following this. The next year, the statute was modified to deal with these issues. Life imprisonment without possibility of parole was also added as a punishment for capital offenses. The last change to the statute was in 1978 after Proposition 7 passed. This gave an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of California, who would directly affirm or reverse the sentence and conviction without going through an intermediate appeal to the California Courts of Appeal. (The state supreme court is currently sponsoring a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow the assignment of capital appeals to the Courts of Appeal to alleviate the backlog of capital appeal cases.)

The latest change of method came in January 1993, when the lethal injection was given as a choice for people sentenced to death. David Mason chose to die of lethal injection, because he wanted to suffer for his crimes. This was changed in 1994 to have lethal injection as the default method. The first person executed under these new laws was William Bonin on 23 February 1996. 13 people have been executed since California reinstated the death penalty in 1977, but 56 others have died on death row of other causes, including 14 of suicide (since 10/25/2007).

In February 2006, a de facto moratorium on capital punishment was enforced in California as the state was unable to obtain the services of a licensed medical professional to carry out the execution of Michael Morales. The occurrence came as a result of an injunction made by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which held that an execution could only be carried out by a medical technician legally authorized to administer IV medications. The lethal injection procedure, if wrongfully performed, could lead to suffering for the condemned, potentially constituting cruel and unusual punishment.

Current legislation


Under the California Penal Code § 3604:
"The punishment of death shall be inflicted by the administration of a lethal gas or by an intravenous injection of a substance or substances in a lethal quantity sufficient to cause death…"
If the prisoner does not make a decision on the method, then the default is given as lethal injection.

The choice is a moot point, as in October 1994, a United States federal judge ruled that the gas chamber was an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, and this was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in February 1996.

Capital offenses

The penal code provides for possible capital punishment in:

Public opinion

The Field Research Corporation found in February 2004 that when asked how they personally felt about capital punishment, 68% supported it and 31% opposed it (6% offered no opinion). This was a fall from 72% two years previous, and a rise from 63% in 2000. The 2004 poll was asked about the time that Kevin Cooper had his execution stayed hours before his scheduled death after 20 years on Death Row.

When asked if they thought the death penalty generally fair and free of error in California, 58% agreed and 32% disagreed (11% offered no opinion). When the results were broken down along ethnicity, of the people who identified themselves as African American, 57% disagreed that the death penalty was fair and free of error.

Post-Gregg executions

A total of 13 individuals convicted of murder have been executed by the state of California since 1976. All were by lethal injection, except for those indicated by an asterisk which were by gas chamber.

Executed person Date of execution Victims Under Governor
1 Robert Alton Harris* 21 April 1992 John Mayeski and Michael Baker. Pete Wilson
2 David Edwin Mason* 24 August 1993 Joan Picard, Arthur Jennings, Boyd Johnson, Antionette Brown and Dorothy Land. Pete Wilson
3 William George Bonin 23 February 1996 Marcus Grabs, Donald Hyden, David Murillo, Dennis Frank Fox, Charles Miranda, James McCabe, Ronald Gatlin, Harry Todd Turner, Russell Rugh, Glenn Barker, Steven Wood, Darin Lee Kendrick, Lawrence Sharp and Steven Jay Wells. Pete Wilson
4 Keith Daniel Williams 31 May 1996 Lourdes Meza, Miguel Vargas and Salvador Vargas. Pete Wilson
5 Thomas Martin Thompson 14 July 1998 Ginger Fleischli. Pete Wilson
6 Jaturun Siripongs 9 February 1999 Packovan Wattanporn and Quach Nguyen. Gray Davis
7 Manuel Pina Babbitt 4 May 1999 Leah Schendel. Gray Davis
8 Darrell Keith Rich 15 March 2000 Annette Fay Edwards, Patricia Ann Moore, Linda Diane Slovik, and Annette Lynn Selix. Gray Davis
9 Robert Lee Massie 27 March 2001 Boris G. Naumoff. Gray Davis
10 Stephen Wayne Anderson 29 January 2002 Elizabeth Lyman. Gray Davis
11 Donald Jay Beardslee 19 January, 2005 Stacey Benjamin and Patty Geddling while on parole for another murder. Arnold Schwarzenegger
12 Stanley Tookie Williams 13 December, 2005 Albert Owens, Yen-Yi Yang, Tsai-Shai Lin, and Yee-Chen Lin. Arnold Schwarzenegger
13 Clarence Ray Allen 17 January, 2006 Bryon Schletewitz, Josephine Rocha, and Douglas White. Arnold Schwarzenegger

See also



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