The Appeal of Death Row
AS AN ORANGE COUNTY jury debated in 2009 whether the white supremacist Billy Joe Johnson should live or die for murdering a fellow gang member, he asked to be sent to death row. Not because he felt any sudden remorse for the five people he’d killed over the years—“I commit crimes when people piss me off,” he once explained, matter-of-factly—but because Johnson believed he’d have better living conditions, including liberal phone privileges, a bigger cell, and daily human interaction, at San Quentin’s death row than he would at Pelican Bay, one of the state’s toughest maximum-security prisons, where he was serving a 46-year-to-life sentence, primarily in solitary confinement.He also knew that the odds were good that he might never be executed. Bogged down by constitutional challenges and appeals, California’s system takes an average of 20 years to move a prisoner from conviction to execution.
Experts on both sides of the death-penalty debate have long agreed that California’s system is the nation’s costliest and least efficient. This June, a landmark report by Paula M. Mitchell, a professor at Loyola Law School, and Arthur L. Alarcón, a senior judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, unearthed new data that reveal just how bad the system is.