California May Seek Moratorium on Executions

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Some California lawmakers are calling for a moratorium on capital punishment, claiming the state could be on the verge of executing innocent people. Next week, the state plans to execute one of the oldest condemned inmates in America, a 75-year-old convicted murderer who's blind and in a wheelchair.


Today in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency to the state's oldest death row inmate. Seventy-five-year-old Clarence Ray Allen is blind, deaf and confined to a wheelchair. He is also a four-time convicted murderer who has nearly exhausted his appeals, he's scheduled to be killed next Tuesday. Few people question whether Allen is guilty, but a fear that others on death row may be innocent has prompted some California lawmakers to call for a two-year moratorium on executions in the state. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.


California has the largest death row in the nation with 646 condemned inmates and as many as five may be executed this year, potentially the greatest number since 1992, the year executions resumed. But a proposal approved by a state assembly committee this week would halt executions until the end of 2007. That's when a bipartisan California commission is scheduled to report its findings on the fair administration of justice. That commission was established last year in the wake of news reports of innocent people being sentenced to death row in other states. Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a West Hollywood Democrat, says his proposal is not about the merits of capital punishment.

Assemblyman PAUL KORETZ (Democrat, West Hollywood): But instead, this measure will help ensure that innocent people will not wind up on death row and will not be executed in the state of California.

GONZALES: But Republican Assmeblyman Todd Spitzer of Orange County says the moratorium is simply unnecessary. And Spitzer disputes the claims of some who allege that as many as half a dozen innocent men have been sentenced to death in California since 1973.

Assemblyman TODD SPITZER (Republican, Orange County): We have an absolute duty to only pursue convictions in cases where somebody is guilty. But there's absolutely no evidence, there's no credible evidence that anyone has been put to death in California wrongfully.

GONZALES: Then there's the case of Gloria Killian of Sacramento. The former law student was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 1986 based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant. Killian served 18 years in prison. She was released after the informant finally admitted he was lying. She spoke at a news conference in support of the moratorium.

Ms. GLORIA KILLIAN (Former Death Row Inmate): All too often criminal trials and investigations are motivated by the desire for a conviction at any cost rather than a true search for justice. Jailhouse informants, perjured evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent attorneys and racial prejudice have put many innocent people behind bars and on death row.

GONZALES: If, in fact, moratorium supporters are trying to abolish the death penalty in California, they face an uphill climb. Capital punishment was established by a ballot initiative and only the voters can change the law. Michael Rushford is the president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

Mr. MICHAEL RUSHFORD (President, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation): It is really surprising to me that, in an election year, the opponents would want to put legislators on the spot on this issue. Now they place them in a political situation where they've got to face 65 percent of the voters and tell them that they support a moratorium when those 65 percent support the death penalty.

GONZALES: However, one poll shows that nearly three-fourths of all Californians support the idea of a moratorium on executions while the fairness of the death penalty is studied.

The outcome of this debate is not going to change next week's scheduled execution of Clarence Ray Allen. Today, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied his request for clemency. That means Allen is set to die one day after his 76th birthday. Because of his physical infirmities, it may be necessary to carry him into the death chamber and place him on a table where he will receive a lethal injection. His attorneys say that is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, but at this point, the only thing that can block Allen's execution is a last-minute stay either from the US ...(unintelligible) Circuit Court of Appeals or the US Supreme Court. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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