10News Examines California's Death Row Policies

Death row is home to the worst murderers in the state, including men like Scott Erskine, who raped, tortured and murdered two South Bay boys who were riding their bikes near the Otay River.

"You know people don't understand that it's not so much he's dead, like the way he died. That is what -- that's what I can't let go," says Maria Keever. She is haunted by the suffering her 13-year-old boy endured at the hands of Erskine. It's been 16 years since Charlie Keever's death, and the pain is still constant.

"You just get used to it. You just don't know what is normal anymore," said Keever.

Erskine's unspeakable crime and other chilling murders are the reason 72 percent of San Diegans polled by 10News support the death penalty -- reinstated by California voters in 1978.

Every year, roughly 20 criminals get sent to death row. But for the majority, it's a sentence in name only.

"It's just a lie. It's just for the birds, the death penalty, because they don't do nothing about it," says Keever.

The numbers are shocking. There are 680 inmates on California's death row. It's the largest in the nation. So far, of all the inmates who have died on death row, only 18% were executed. Far more -- 82 percent -- died from natural or other causes.

This month, Thomas Edwards died on death row of natural causes. He moved into San Quentin State Prison 22 years ago, for shooting and killing 12-year-old Vanessa Iberri at a campground near San Juan Capistrano. Her father, Joe, kept hoping for an execution that never came.

"I didn't know the way the defense works and there's so many appeals involved in this that I was just astonished," says Iberri. "Enough is enough, I mean how much longer is this going to go on?"

Death is the ultimate punishment the state can give. With a life at stake, there are seemingly endless appeals that meander through the courts for years.

"How do we make this system work better? How can we make it so it's a very fair and effective system, but also one that goes a little faster than two to three decades for an execution to happen?" asks Dan Lamborn, Chief Deputy District Attorney for the County of San Diego.

Lamborn prosecuted Cleophus Prince, who terrorized San Diego when he stabbed six women to death in the 1990's. Fifteen years later, Prince is still in the first half of the appeals process.

"It takes us five years just to get a defense attorney appointed on the appellate side -- five years for that, which is ridiculous," says Lamborn.

Gary Schons, Senior Assistant Attorney General, says the massive amount of records involved in death cases is another reason for the long process. One brief for a San Diego inmate took a defense attorney five years to write.

"Not only is justice delayed, justice denied, but also the mere passage of time always serves as a factor that can endanger obtaining ultimate justice in these cases," says Schons.

Of the 40 death row inmates convicted in San Diego County, Bernard Hamilton has been in San Quentin the longest - 28 years. He murdered and mutilated a Mesa College student, who was also a wife and mom with two baby boys.

"On Monday, the California Supreme Court affirmed the last penalty phase aspect of his case," says Schons. "So we're 30 years out from the murder, 14 years out from the retrial of the penalty phase, and we're only halfway home."

In a report last year, the California Commission on the Fair Adminstration of Justice called the death penalty system "dysfunctional" and suggested changes saying, "Doing nothing would be the worst possible course." They also looked at the price tag: The death penalty system costs the state $137 million dollars per year. Replacing death with life imprisonment without parole would cost $11.5 million per year.

"The difference is enormous," says Jeff Chinn of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law

A coalition called "Taxed to Death" includes the ACLU and California Innocence Project. They suggest life sentences without parole as a cost-effective fix to a broken death penalty system.

"We're talking about significant immediate gains that would be beneficial to everyone and would free up resources to spend on all of these other issues -- social services and fire protection and police protection that we're right now worried about cutting," says Andrea Guerrero, ACLU Field and Policy Director.

Not everyone agrees that we should do away with capital punishment.

"I do believe in the death penalty. I know that examples can be set and justice will be served," says Iberri.

"There are some atrocious crimes. Why should we punish one murderer who killed somebody during a robbery, the same as somebody who rapes and kills six women? There has to be a difference in punishment there," says Lamborn.

The only agreement is that something must be done. Having a death penalty in name only cheats taxpayers, crime victims and families left traumatized by the crime and lack of punishment.

"First I had to wait eight years to find him, then had to wait another two years to go to court. And now I'm still waiting. And I think I will die waiting," says Keever.

This month, Maryland became the fifth state in recent months to propose getting rid of the death penalty to cut costs. Here in California, the governor has not suggested that, even though no one has been executed for three years, because of challenges to the state's lethal injection process.