KSBY Investigates: Death row debate - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

KSBY Investigates: Death row debate

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California has 746 convicted murderers, rapists, and torturers on death row, the highest number in the nation by more than 300 inmates. Since the death penalty was reestablished in 1973, only 13 people have actually been put to death, leaving many victims' families waiting for justice to be served and asking, 'why have a death penalty if sentences are not carried out?'

On the 2012 ballot, a measure to abolish the death penalty was narrowly defeated. Looking toward 2016, two measures have been sent to the state's attorney general for consideration: One again asks voters to abolish the death penalty, the other would reform it to bring swifter justice for victims' families. This is fueling the flames of an already heated debate.

"I would reverse the question and ask you, 'why would someone who deliberately murdered in a very painful, horrible way, should not receive the death penalty,'" questioned Richard Riggins, whose son was murdered in 1980. "What redeeming grace could you expect from this individual and why would you want this individual back in society, maybe living next door to you?"

It was a foggy December morning in 1980 in Davis, California. John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, both freshman at University of California Davis, were on their way to a family birthday party. The young couple never made it. Three days later, their bodies were found in a ditch.

It took until 2013 for Richard Hirschfield to finally be tried and convicted for the so-called "Sweetheart Murders" and given a sentence of death.

"I was convinced that should someone be held responsible for their murder that they certainly should receive the death penalty. That has never been a question in my mind," said Kate Riggins as she recalled the trial of her son's murderer.

Kate and Richard Riggins make up just one of thousands of families who have lived through the terror of losing a loved one to murder.

"They have deliberately and cruelly destroyed another human being. They just don't accidentally kill. They are the most part very aware of what they are doing," said Kate Riggins.

Their son, John, has been dead for 35 years and the Riggins still wait for justice.

"I think that the fact that there are very evil people out there and they do need to have, some way, an ultimate punishment to take place," said Kate Riggins.

San Quentin State Prison is located in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is home to all of California's male death row inmates. The inmates live in single cells with a cot and get three meals a day.

Of the 746 convicted, three cases are out of San Luis Obispo County and 10 are out of Santa Barbara County. They include Rex Krebs, Richard Benson and Ryan Hoyt.

The upcoming 2016 election could shake things up. Two capital punishment initiatives have been submitted to the State Attorney General for review. The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016 would keep and speed up executions. The Justice that Works Act of 2016 would replace execution with life without parole.

According to the Justice that Works Act, California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty system.

"The fiscal in dollars and cents reasons to deal with this is (it's) vastly cheaper to eliminate the death penalty," said San Luis Obispo Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Stein.

Backers of the Justice that Works Act claim it would save the state $1 billion in five years without ever releasing a prisoner into society.

"We, with China and the Saudi Arabians, are the only place where the death penalties are common events," explained Stein. "It doesn't have any positive effect for making society safer."

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow is one of many district attorneys in California standing behind the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act.

"It's all about justice and justice for victims," said Dow.

Currently, it takes five or more years for capital defendants to be appointed an appellate lawyer. This act would create a prompt appeals process.

"But when the facts warrant a verdict of death, then we need to make sure we go ahead and implement that once a proper appellate process is preceded," said Dow. "We need to make sure we are not delayed by loopholes, or really, a broken system."

"I sort of smile when I think about, 'oh it is so inhumane,'" said Richard Riggins. "I have often thought, 'well, if you think it is inhumane, why don't you dispatch them with the same method that they dispatched their victims?' They certainly thought that was good for them, so, good enough for themselves and the perpetrator. And if you really hear how, I am sure, by injection, I don't really know how many people have been put to sleep, but that is exactly what it would be like, except that you wouldn't wake up and I am all in favor of that."

Both initiatives are active and pending review. Enough funding and signatures are needed for both measures before they can be put on the 2016 ballot. 

Related links:
The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016
Californians for Death Penalty Reform & Savings
The Justice that Works Act of 2016
Death Penalty Information Center

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