Justice Delayed? Death Penalty for California Salon Massacre May Mean Waiting for a Generation

By Maurice Possley 11-09-2011
Scott Dekraai's mug shot after his arrest in the Seal Beach salon slayings.
Scott Dekraai's mug shot after his arrest in the Seal Beach salon slayings.

Within days after eight people were murdered in a southern California hair salon in the worst mass killing in Orange County history, authorities announced they would seek the death penalty against the suspect.

Tony Rackauckas, Orange County District Attorney, held a press conference to announce his intent to seek the death penalty for Scott Dekraai, who killed his ex-wife and seven others at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach on Oct. 12.
“There are some cases that are so depraved, so callous, so malignant that there is only one punishment that might have any chance of fitting the crime," Rackauckas said. “When a person, in a case like this, goes on a rampage and kills innocent people in an indiscriminate bloody massacre, I will of course seek the death penalty.”

He added, “This is the only way our society can get anything approaching justice for the victims, their families, the town of Seal Beach, and the larger community.”

If justice means putting Dekraai on a gurney and executing him, the victims, their families and everyone else hoping for that outcome should face the cold hard fact that they are in for a long wait.

And given the recent history of the death penalty in California, unless Kekraai waives his appeals (there’s little doubt of his guilt) the journey to the end of all legal challenges will be very expensive and, just perhaps, never result in his death at the hands of the state.

Since California resumed the death penalty in 1978, a total of 13 defendants have been executed. The shortest time from conviction to execution was 13 years (David Mason, who was convicted in 1980 and executed in 1993) and the longest was 25 years (Clarence Ray Allen, who was convicted in 1980 and executed in 2006). The time between conviction and execution has grown steadily over the past three decades. Donald Beardslee was executed in 2005, 21 years after his conviction, and Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed in 2005, 24 years after his conviction.

California has the largest death row population in the nation with 720 inmates and no executions have been carried out since 2006. According to a study released earlier this year by Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor, and Arthur L. Alarcon, a senior judge on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the state has spent more than $4 billion on its death penalty system -- more than $300 million per execution. The state’s annual cost is about $184 million—a lot of money in a state that has cut back resources just about everywhere possible.

On Nov. 4, California Gov. Jerry Brown, joined by lawyers for Death Row inmates, filed a motion to extend what is in effect a de facto moratorium on executions until at least 2012. Executions have been on hold in California since a federal judge called a halt after lawyers for Death Row inmate Michael Morales challenged lethal injection as cruel and inhumane.

At the same time, death penalty foes throughout the state are gathering signatures to put a measure on the 2012 ballot that would allow voters to abolish the death penalty completely. The ballot initiative is called SAFE -- Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement -- and aims to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Whether voters will support abolishing the death penalty remains to be seen. A Field Poll released in September showed that 68 percent of those surveyed favored keeping the death penalty, 27 percent supported abolition and five percent had no opinion. At the same time, when those polled were offered the option of life in prison without parole, the percentages shifted dramatically, with 48 percent favoring life without parole and 40 percent favoring the death penalty.

Across the nation, executions are on the decline. Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty, with Illinois in 2011 being the latest. Eight other states have not had an execution in more than a decade -- becoming essentially de facto abolition states. That’s just one state short of half of the nation.

According to a recent editorial in the New York Times, “Only one-seventh of the nation’s 3,147 counties have carried out an execution since 1976. As a result, the death penalty is the embodiment of arbitrariness.” Most of those have occurred in a handful of counties in Texas.

So, while there is no doubt that the Seal Beach killings were horrific and that many people will be deeply pained for perhaps the rest of their lives, the survivors and their family members should be aware that if their healing depends on the execution of the man who slaughtered eight innocents, they may well be waiting for a generation.

Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and investigative researcher for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. He is the author of several books including his latest, Hitler in the Crosshairs: A G.I.'s Story of Courage and Faith.


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