The Death Penalty Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties -
LOS ANGELES DISTRICT ATTORNEY Steve Cooley is in a hurry to have Mitchell Sims put to death. You couldn’t blame Cooley if he felt frustrated. He’s seen the execution of Sims, a convicted triple murderer, delayed for six solid years, bogged down in a legal quagmire over whether California’s three-chemical lethal-injection sequence is a sufficiently humane method of killing someone. By the time the courts decide the issue, the state might not even be able to obtain the deadly drugs required. And to top it off, Cooley may be running out of time: this November, the state’s voters may decide to abandon the death penalty altogether.
Opponents in the Golden State have been trying to get rid of capital punishment for a long time, but this year’s ballot initiative is their most forceful effort in many years. It is headlined by Cooley’s onetime boss, former L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, as well as law-and-order luminaries like Don Heller, another former prosecutor, who wrote California’s ballot language reinstating the death penalty in 1978, and Jeanne Woodford, who, when she was warden of San Quentin, presided over four executions. They argue the death penalty is a sham—and an expensive one that California can ill afford. Since 1978, taxpayers have shelled out $4 billion in executing only 13 condemned inmates. By contrast, they note, 57 have died of old age. And the initiative has momentum: in the past five years, four other states have done away with the death penalty. California’s death row—the nation’s largest, with 729 condemned inmates—could well be the next to be shut down.
IF THE DEATH PENALTY is meant for anybody, it’s Mitchell Sims. Back in January 1985, Sims—then 25—had just been promoted to a mid-management position at a Domino’s Pizza in West Columbia, South Carolina. Sims believed he deserved a bonus; his bosses thought otherwise. In December, Sims shot and killed two employees at a nearby Domino’s franchise. He and his girlfriend fled to California and took up lodging at a motel in Glendale. The next night, the couple telephoned a local Domino’s to order room service. When John Harrigan showed up with a pizza in hand, Sims robbed and hog-tied the 21-year-old, dumped him in the bathtub, and turned on the water. He gagged Harrigan by strapping a washcloth over his mouth, and wrapped a sock around his head to keep it there. Then Sims covered Harrigan’s head with a pillowcase and tied it tightly around the deliveryman’s neck with what the forensic literature called a “ligature.” Sims would later testify that Harrigan was still alive when he and his girlfriend left; but this homicide was never remotely a whodunit. When Harrigan’s body was discovered a few hours later, the lone mystery was whether he’d been strangled or drowned.
In 1987, Sims was sentenced to death. Sims was not, as he told the judge, “a nice person.” Jurors would hear how Sims’s sadistic stepfather repeatedly raped him as a young boy and made him have sex with his own mother. But they must have been more horrified by the creative cruelty Sims exhibited in the commission of his crimes. By 2006, Sims had exhausted all his appeals.