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Death penalty decision looms
October 11, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sally Schilling Daily Journal correspondent

Proposition 34 would change criminal sentencing in two ways. First, it would prevent anyone in California from being sentenced to death in the future. Second, the 727 inmates who are currently on death row would be resentenced to life without parole.

"I have a serious issue with turning over what has been done in the past,” said Tami McMillan, sister of the late East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May, who was shot and killed by Alberto Alvarez in 2006.

A jury sentenced Alvarez to death in 2010. He is now on death row in San Quentin State Prison. If Proposition 34 passes, his death sentence would be changed to life without parole.

"If voters change that, they are changing the judicial system which already said this person should get the highest penalty, which is death,” said McMillan.

She is concerned about the message this would send to the jury that sentenced Alvarez to death.

They said this was the hardest thing they had done in their lives, to decide the fate of a man’s life, said McMillan, who still communicates with some of the jury members.

Abolishing the death penalty in the future is one thing, she said, but resentencing inmates who have already been tried contradicts the law.

If the highest sentence had been life without parole during the time of her brother’s trial, McMillan would have been OK with that, so long as the jury was giving the highest possible sentence.

"One thing my brother always believed in was the justice system,” she said.

A complex issue

McMillan avoided making any blanket statements about how the death penalty cases should be tried, saying each case is different. But while there are defendants who do require an extensive appellate process to answer lingering questions of evidence and a fair trial, there are other cases, like her brother’s murder, that she believes should be carried out quicker.

If there is no question, like in the case of McMillan’s brother in which Alvarez admitted to murder, these should be streamlined up the appellate court, she said. Nothing in Proposition 34 addresses that, she said.

"It is just such a complex issue,” she said. "I don’t think one measure on the ballot can change what needs to be changed.”

Trials of the death penalty

As an Alameda County prosecutor, Darryl Stallworth tried more than 20 murder cases. But when he got a promoted to try 21-year-old Demarcus Ralls in a death penalty case, he found the trial demanded much more of him than any other case had before. He came away from his most high-profile work feeling that the death penalty does not do any good, even in the most heinous of cases.

"What was going to happen to this young man was [dependent] on how I prepared my case and how the jury decides,” said Stallworth. "I had to spend a lot of time thinking about that.”

Stallworth had to argue that Ralls deserved the death penalty for committing four murders and 18 robberies. He was the youngest person in a gang crime spree that occurred in 2002 and 2003. Ralls, who had been abused as a child, had the most murder charges of the gang, said Stallworth.

"In the DA’s office, this is hall-of-fame stuff,” he said of the capital case. "[But] I started to find all of these questions with the victims’ families.”

Stallworth sat down with each of the victims’ families and heard their stories. He talked with the father whose 19-year-old-son was shot and killed by Ralls’ gang. The father couldn’t begin to tell Stallworth how much pain he was in. Stallworth tried to console the father with talk of the case against Ralls.

"I said you will get some type of closure with this,” he said. "But to me, it seemed so shallow.”

Withstanding an eight-month trial followed by years of waiting for the murderer’s execution were not points of genuine comfort in Stallworth’s mind.

Another victim in the case was a child who was visiting his family at Christmas time.

"He was shot two days after Christmas, right by the Christmas tree,” said Stallworth, who tried to comfort the family by talking about the trial.

"Here I am again telling them this is what will happen,” he said, adding that the harsh experience of trial could not bring closure. "It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The judge asked Stallworth to withhold some of the victim’s reactions to the murders from the trial, claiming they were too emotional for the jury.

"The irony of this is you are still asking them to kill somebody,” he said.

The jury sentenced Ralls to life without parole.

The Daily Journal asked Stallworth whether repealing the death penalty sentences for those who are already on death row would send the wrong message to the citizens who served on the juries.

"I would say they wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said. "They would say they had no idea what they were doing.”

Less special

When asked whether life without parole would suffice for the worst criminals, Stallworth said yes.

 "They get to actually be less special,” he said. "They will not have the Supreme Court as an audience.”

Because of the severity of the sentence, in capital cases, the defendant is granted state-sponsored legal counsel and appellate rights all the way up to the California Supreme Court.

On the other hand, someone who is sentenced to life without parole is granted an attorney for one appeal.

"If the appeal is denied, that’s it, your deal is done,” said Stallworth.

County cases

Since 1978, 15 people who committed first-degree murders in San Mateo County have been sentenced to death, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who is speaking out against Proposition 34.

He believes the death penalty is necessary for reprimanding the most egregious criminals.

"There are certain crimes that are so evil that they call out for the maximum punishment society can give,” he said.

Contrary to Stallworth’s experience, Wagstaffe finds that victims’ families do want the death penalty.

"The vast majority do feel the death penalty is appropriate,” he said.

Wagstaffe admits the current judicial system for the death penalty is lengthy and costly.

"The system that exists now is horrible,” he said. "What is causing the delays is not law enforcement or citizens, it’s a system that allows a case to go on forever.”

Despite the judicial backlog, Wagstaffe feels the system is reformable.

"I think it can be fixed,” he said. "It will take leadership in the state to bring about the will of the people.”

Box info

What’s in Proposition 34

• Repeals the death penalty, making the maximum sentence life without parole;

• Resentences death row inmates to life without parole;

• Requires that all inmates convicted of murder work in prison, with wages deducted for any required restitution to victims’ families; and

• Earmarks $100 million over the course of four years for local investigations into unsolved rapes and murders.

For more information on the ‘Yes on Prop. 34’ campaign visit safecalifornia.org.

For the ‘No on Prop. 34’ campaign visit waitingforjustice.net.

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