In California, Killers Sit on ‘Symbolic’ Death Row for Decades, Costing Billions
On June 28, 1984, a young man broke into the home of 79-year-old Jennie Vincow in Los Angeles. Over the course of a few hours he ransacked the elderly woman’s apartment, raped her and repeatedly stabbed her. He then slashed her throat so badly that she was nearly decapitated. Her son found her body the next day.
It was the beginning of a spree of murder, rape and burglary that gripped Southern California for 14 months — until Richard Ramirez, a 24-year-old drifter from El Paso, Texas, was arrested in Los Angeles. By then, the man who had come to be known as “the Night Stalker” had killed no fewer than 13 people and brutally raped and disfigured several more, including:
• Vincent and Maxine Zazza. Vincent, 64, was found in his home with a bullet hole in his temple. His wife, Maxine, 44, was found naked in her bed, her eyes gouged out and with stab wounds on her face, neck, breasts, abdomen and groin.
• Elyas Abowath, 35, who was shot in the head while he slept. Ramirez allowed Abowath’s wife, 29, to live — after he raped and sodomized her.
• Lela and Max Kneiding, both 66, found shot to death and mutilated with a machete.
Ramirez’s crimes were marked by the satanic pentagrams he left on his victims and the sexual abuse of women who were sometimes forced to sing praises of Satan before he raped them.
No one — including Ramirez himself — doubts that his killing spree earned him a cell on California’s death row. When he was found guilty of capital murder in 1989, he remarked, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory.”
But so far, it hasn’t. For the past 21 years, Richard Ramirez has sat in a single cell on death row in San Quentin, and he is still years away from his last meal. According to experts familiar with his case, the ritual killer is “only about halfway through the appeals process” that will end in his execution.
If that process continues at its present pace, Ramirez, who committed most of his crimes when he was in his mid-20s, won’t be put to death until he is 71 years old — if he lives that long.
That a man could sit nearly 50 years on death row isn’t surprising — especially in California, where critics of the state’s system say the odds of a convicted killer actually living long enough to be put to death are about 100 to one. Most prisoners sentenced to execution, studies and experts say, simply die of old age or other illnesses while in prison as the appeals process grinds on.
“The death penalty is purely symbolic in California,” says Natasha Minsker, who just completed a study of the death penalty in California for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. With almost 700 people on death row in the state, the study found not only that maintaining a prison and legal system to support the death penalty cost the state billions of dollars, but that, for all the money spent, the penalty is rarely used. Since 1977 only 13 people have been executed. During the same period, 59 death row inmates died of old age or other infirmities.
What is most surprising about Ramirez’s appeals is that there is nothing extraordinary about them. It is the same process every prisoner on death row goes through. By law, every death sentence in California has to be appealed and reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court to ensure that no one who is innocent faces the ultimate penalty.