One of the unintended consequences of creating a legal situation in California—as well as in other states—where the actual imposition of the death penalty after sentencing may become so long that many death row prisoners die of natural causes before it can be applied, is the realization that—in many respects—prison time served in the often commodious accommodations of death row rather than in the crowded ones of the main line is much to be preferred; leading to what has happened as noted in this article from the Los Angeles Times.
“White supremacist gang hit man Billy Joe Johnson got what he asked for from the Orange County jury that convicted him of first-degree murder last month: a death sentence.
“It wasn't remorse for his crimes or a desire for atonement that drove him to ask for execution; it was the expectation that conditions on death row would be more comfortable than in other maximum-security prisons and that any date with the executioner would be decades away if it came at all.
“Although executions are carried out with comparative speed in states such as Virginia, where Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad was put to death Tuesday night, capital punishment in California has become so bogged down by legal challenges as to be a nearly empty threat, say experts on both sides of the issue.
"This is a dramatic reaffirmation of what we've already known for some time, that capital punishment in California takes way too long," Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the law-and-order Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said of Johnson's bet that he will live a long life on death row. "This guy certainly feels like it's worth the risk."
“Statistics suggest that Johnson may be correct in his calculations.
“California has the nation's largest death row population, with 685 sentenced to die by lethal injection. Yet only 13 executions have been carried out since capital punishment resumed in 1977 and none of the condemned have been put to death since a moratorium was imposed nearly four years ago. Five times as many death row inmates -- 71 -- have died over that same period of natural causes, suicide or inside violence.
“Though death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison are far from coddled, they live in single cells that are slightly larger than the two-bunk, maximum-security confines elsewhere, they have better access to telephones and they have "contact visits" in plexiglass booths by themselves rather than in communal halls as in other institutions. They have about the only private accommodations in the state's 33-prison network, which is crammed with 160,000-plus convicts.
“Death row prisoners are served breakfast and dinner in their cells, can usually mingle with others in the outdoor exercise yards while eating their sack lunches, and have exclusive control over the television, CD player or other diversions in their cells.
"Death row inmates probably have the most liberal telephone privileges of anyone in state custody," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, explaining that they need ready access to their attorneys and can often make calls from their cells over a phone that can be rolled along the cellblock.”