Death-Row Septuagenarian Seeks Clemency

California's oldest death-row inmate is 75-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, convicted of arranging four murders. Allen is legally blind, in a wheelchair and suffered a heart attack last September. Set to die by lethal injection on Jan. 17, Allen is seeking clemency.

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In California, Clarence Ray Allen is scheduled to die by lethal injection in January. He's been convicted of masterminding the murders of three people. His lawyers are appealing for clemency. They say that, at age 75, Clarence Ray Allen is too old and too sick to be executed, and they say he's not alone, as old age is creeping into death row. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

In 1980, Clarence Ray Allen was already serving a life sentence in Folsom State Prison. He had arranged the murder of his son's girlfriend because she was a witness to another crime Allen had committed. According to Deputy Attorney General Ward Campbell, Allen had plans for the other witnesses, too.

Mr. WARD CAMPBELL (Deputy Attorney General, California): He conspired to murder the witnesses who testified against him in his first murder trial, and befriended a hit man who was released from Folsom who went out and proceeded to start implementing that conspiracy. As a result, a former witness named Brian Schletewitz and two innocent bystanders were murdered in Fresno, California, on September 5th, 1980.

GONZALES: For those murders, Allen got the death penalty. Today, 25 years later, he's blind, diabetic, uses a wheelchair and recently suffered a heart attack. One geriatric specialist described his heart as a `ticking time bomb.' Annette Carnegie is one of his attorneys.

Ms. ANNETTE CARNEGIE (Attorney for Clarence Ray Allen): The thought that such a person would be literally wheeled into a death chamber, strapped to a gurney and then given drugs to stop their heart, etc., is somehow ghoulish.

GONZALES: Yet it is also an image that may become more common. Nationwide, there are more than 100 seniors on death row. The majority are here in California, where there are 39 elderly condemned inmates. Part of this is due to California's time-consuming death penalty appeals process, which can stretch out over two decades. But for the whole nation, there's another factor at play here, says Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School.

Mr. JONATHAN TURLEY (George Washington University Law School): As society grows older, you're going to necessarily have an increase of prisoners who enter the system later in life.

GONZALES: For example, Clarence Ray Allen, who was first convicted at the age of 47. Advocates and opponents of capital punishment agree that with this graying of death row, the public will be confronted with the question: Is it appropriate to execute elderly and sick inmates who appear to pose no threat to society? Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, says...

Mr. MICHAEL RUSHFORD (President, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation): Yes. I think it's OK to sentence--to give murderers the sentence that the jury decided that they deserved, so I think yeah, it's OK to enforce the law.

GONZALES: Tim Ford, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in defending death row inmates, says such executions undermine the notion that capital punishment exists as a deterrent.

Mr. TIM FORD (Attorney): So you're talking about putting to death a person who is old and feeble and harmless. You know, what we're doing is we're killing our captives. We're killing people who are captured and under control and no longer able to harm us.

GONZALES: And would that describe Clarence Ray Allen? As a younger man, Allen proved that even when he was locked up, he was still a threat to society, says Ward Campbell, the deputy attorney general, and he adds that just because Allen is old and sick, we shouldn't forget his victims.

Mr. CAMPBELL: All the people he murdered--responsible for murdering--were less than 30 years old; had no chance to enjoy any kind of true adult life.

GONZALES: But Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School wonders whether society's demand for retribution will survive an inmate's old age.

Mr. TURLEY: As we see more and more geriatric prisoners move to final-round appeals, society will have to confront more and more whether retribution alone is a sufficient rationale for capital punishment.

GONZALES: In California, a condemned inmate is still more likely to die of natural causes than execution. But perhaps it's no coincidence that as the state plans to build a new death row at its antiquated San Quentin facility, the blueprints include more room for wheelchairs. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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