Endlessly conflicted over capital punishment, California hasn’t executed an inmate in more than 14 years, and although suicide, drug overdoses, inmate murders and old age claim a few of the condemned each year, a new killer has come to Death Row.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year, at least eight condemned inmates are believed to have succumbed to the disease that has swept the 168-year-old San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, where Death Row prisoners traditionally are housed. The deaths of two other inmates are under investigation amid what’s become one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country.
California has more Death Row inmates — 716 — than any other state. But even as it sends more newly condemned killers to Death Row, with two more added in January and February, the execution chamber sits idle while state leaders and residents debate the legal and moral implications of capital punishment.
Though voters rejected death penalty repeals in 2012 and 2016, ongoing state and federal litigation challenging California’s execution protocol and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 13 capital punishment moratorium have stayed executions.
Just 15 of California’s 158 condemned inmates who have died since 1978 were executed, two of those by other states. Of the rest, 88 died naturally, 28 killed themselves, 15 others overdosed on drugs or were killed by others. Last year nine condemned inmates died, six from natural causes, two from drugs and one by suicide.
Of the 13 condemned inmates who died this year, three are attributed to natural causes. Ten are listed as “pending” official causes of death, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation listed COVID-19 as a suspected factor for eight. They are:
Johnny Avila Jr., 62, died July 26 at an outside hospital. Avila was sentenced in Fresno County to die for murdering two women, one of whom was gang-raped, on a canal bank after a rural gathering near Fresno in 1991.
John M. Beames, 67, died July 21 at an outside hospital. Beames was sentenced to die for beating his girlfriend’s 15-month-old daughter to death in Tulare County in 1995.
Troy A. Ashmus, 58, died July 20 at an outside hospital. Ashmus was sentenced in Sacramento County to death for the 1984 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl who was fishing with her brother.
Jeffrey J. Hawkins, 64, died July 15 at an outside hospital. Hawkins was sentenced in Sacramento County to die for the separate 1987 shooting deaths of a customer during a market robbery near Sacramento and a bar patron near Galt.
David John Reed, 60, died July 7 at an outside hospital. Reed was sentenced to death in Riverside County for stabbing a Black homeless man to death in a racially motivated attack in Palm Springs.
Dewayne Michael Carey, 59, died July 4 at an outside hospital. Carey was sentenced in Los Angeles County to the death penalty for stabbing a woman to death in her home during a robbery.
Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, died July 3 at an outside hospital. Erskine was sentenced in San Diego County to die for beating, raping and murdering two boys ages 13 and 9 found dead two days after they didn’t return from bicycling along the Otay River in 1993. A genetic match linked him to their murders in 2004 while he served a 70-year term for rape.
Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, died July 3 at an outside hospital. Alvarez was sentenced to death in Sacramento County for a 1987 spree of mayhem that included raping a woman, killing a man while trying to rob him and knocking out a 78-year-old woman to steal her car.
The two Death Row inmates whose deaths are under investigation are:
Joseph S. Cordova, 75, died July 1 at San Quentin State Prison, where he was found unresponsive in his single cell with no signs of trauma. Cordova was sentenced to death in Contra Costa County for the 1979 rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in San Pablo. A genetic match tied him to the crime in 2002 while he was serving a prison sentence in Colorado for child molestation.
Richard E. Stitely, 71, died June 24 at San Quentin State Prison where he also was found unresponsive in his cell. Stitely was sentenced to death in Los Angeles County for the rape and murder of a woman in 1990 who was last seen leaving a bar in Reseda.
The CDCR concluded that three other Death Row inmates who died this year succumbed to “natural causes.”
Lonnie D. Franklin Jr., 67, the “grim sleeper” sentenced in Los Angeles County for the murders of nine women and a girl from 1985 and 2007, was found dead in his cell March 28. John Abel, 75, sentenced to death in Orange County for murdering a man during a robbery in 1991, died Feb. 15 at an outside hospital. And Thomas Potts, 71, sentenced in Kings County for murdering an elderly couple, died Feb. 5 at an outside hospital.
Source: Orange County Register