Prop 34 may affect double homicide trial in Martinez
on November 2, 2012
When California citizens vote next week on Proposition 34, they could be holding the life of accused murderer Nathaniel Burris in their hands.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty against Burris, whose high-profile trial for a 2009 double-homicide at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge started in Martinez this week. Prop 34, which would abolish capital punishment in California, would remove that option.
If Prop 34 passes, the 725 people on California’s death row – the largest in the country – will no longer be “dead men walking.” Their sentences will be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Eighteen of those men are from Contra Costa County. Five of them were prosecuted by Senior Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett, who is leading the case against Burris.
“At the end of the day, for me at least, it is enough that a person who does something horrible is for all time and forever condemned by a jury of his peers,” Jewett said.
Jewett would not comment on his case against Burris or why he’s pursuing capital punishment. But he said that those who have been judged should have their sentences carried out.
In a strange twist, this week the family of Burris’ victims, Deborah Ross and Ersie Everette Jr. approached Jewett after court and asked him not to seek the death penalty. They said they would like to see Burris locked up for the rest of his life, instead of giving him what he wants — death. Burris has been asking for the death penalty since his arrest in 2009.
Bishop Edwina Perez-Santiago, a local faith leader who works with women coming home from prison and supports Prop 34, first started visiting men on death row more than 20 years ago. She had been on TV talking about her outreach to formerly incarcerated women and soon afterward a death row inmate who saw the show called her. On New Year’s Day 1991 she walked into San Quentin for the first time.
“I was shaking the whole time walking out of there,” Perez-Santiago said.
Visiting death row doesn’t affect her nerves as much now, but she says she never wants to see any of those men out of prison. That’s not to say she wants them to die at the state’s hand. Perez-Santiago said she wants the death sentence replaced with life in prison.
“I say to [death row inmates] openly and honestly, ‘I think you should do your time,’” Perez-Santiago said. “’And I don’t think you should ever get out.’”
Prison and the death penalty aren’t deterring anyone from committing a crime, Perez-Santiago said, and abolishing the death penalty won’t solve anything. Instead, she said there needs to be more services to prevent the crimes in the first place — which is what her nonprofit is doing in North Richmond. Reach Fellowship works specifically with women coming home from jail or prison and helps them find housing, parenting classes, education, job support, or whatever else a woman might need.
“It’s got to be the community and the prison system coming together,” she said.
If approved, Prop 34 would commit $30 million a year for three years to fund efforts to solve homicide and rape cases. The money would come from closing three state agencies that handle expensive appeals for death penalty cases, according to SAFE California. Prop 34 advocates also say it would save California taxpayers $130 million each year without releasing a single prisoner.
Jewett said he doesn’t buy the savings. He says it’s ironic that Prop 34 advocates say they would save the state money when they are the ones holding up capital cases with multiple appeals and legal action. Some of the men prosecuted by Jewett have been on death row for decades because of opposition to lethal injection, he said.
“The costs I’m talking about are not the costs of maintaining someone in prison,” Jewett said. “It’s the lawyers’ costs. It’s the court costs. It’s the costs associated with litigation … The irony is that [Prop 34 advocates] are the ones responsible for creating those costs.”
But whatever California voters decide in the election next week, Jewett said he will respect it.
“If a majority of the people in this state say they don’t want the death penalty, that’s their decision and I’m OK with that,” he said. “I will always believe that there is a measure of justice in condemnation, whether or not the sentence is ever carried out.”
Jennifer Baires contributed to this article.
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