WatchSonoma Watch

Should they live or die?


If the man sentenced to death for shooting Toni MacDonald’s son repeatedly with a 9 mm pistol had been executed immediately after his conviction, the Santa Rosa mother would have supported such swift justice.

Toni MacDonald, with a photo of her son, former Piner High football star James MacDonald, who was shot working as a police officer in Compton in 1993. His killer is on Death Row. (John Burgess / PD)

However, nearly two decades have passed since the killing of James “Jimmy Mac” MacDonald, a Santa Rosa native and former Piner High School quarterback. The man convicted of the slaying, Regis Dean Thomas, remains on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

“I wish it would have been the next day,” MacDonald said. “But then as time went by — now I have issues with the death penalty. The cost to the public is astronomical … And that’s never going to change; it just won’t.”

An initiative to abolish the death penalty qualified Monday for the November ballot, once again thrusting Californians into the debate over capital punishment.

Supporters of the measure, which is called the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, contend that the sluggish pace of executions and high costs associated with housing Death Row inmates and overseeing their cases are obstacles to justice.

If the measure passes, men convicted of some of Sonoma County’s most heinous crimes would have their sentences converted from death to life without the possibility of parole.

Among them are seven men convicted of killing their own children and wives, of raping girls, of stabbing an elderly woman and of shooting a deputy.

“The only reason I think about Richard Allen Davis at all is because these people who oppose the death penalty keep throwing this in our faces,” said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped from her Petaluma home, then raped and strangled. Her body was discarded near an abandoned lumber mill in Cloverdale.

Davis was sentenced to death in 1996. He awaits execution.

Fourteen California Death Row inmates have been executed since 1978, including a man whose execution took place in Missouri. At that pace, it would take 1,800 years to execute 720 people — the number of men and women currently on Death Row.

The process drags families through decades of hearings, said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison and one of the measure’s supporters.

“Life without the possibility of parole means these inmates will die in prison and it means that we will quit spending millions to billions on appeals,” said Woodford, a one-time Rohnert Park resident who now runs the national nonprofit group Death Penalty Focus.

“It is a broken system,” she said.

The cost of death penalty cases is no small matter for California, which faces a huge ongoing budget deficit, said Woodford, who began to work at San Quentin State Prison in 1978 after graduating from Sonoma State University.

“These crimes are horrible; there’s nothing we can do to bring closure to these family members,” she said. “But we certainly can end this legal battle that can go on forever.”

California spent $308 million on each of the 13 cases that have resulted in execution at San Quentin since 1978, according to a comprehensive three-year study by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and his law clerk and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.

The state currently spends $184 million a year on death penalty cases, according to the study. The figure includes legal costs for trials, appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.

Such costs and delays are inexcusable, say opponents of the ballot measure

“It should not have taken this long — it shouldn’t take any longer than a dog’s euthanization,” said Carmina Salcido of Rohnert Park.

Salcido’s father, Ramon Salcido, murdered her mother, Angela, when Salcido was 3 years old in April of 1989. He then slashed her throat and those of her sisters, Sofia, 4, and Teresa, 22 months, and killed four others. Carmina was the only family member to survive.

Now 26 and with 1-year-old daughter, Zophia. she at times has struggled to support herself and sought government assistance including food stamps.

During those times, she’s thought about her father receiving three square meals each day and never worrying about how to keep a roof over his head.

“This is outrageous, for victims to try to make ends meet and people who caused their struggle live pretty decently,” Salcido said.

Salcido said the death penalty process should be shortened, suggesting the standards to impose death sentences be made stricter so that executions could place sooner.

“I believe this is a just and humane thing to do,” Salcido said.

However, some studies suggest that repairing the system would cost even more.

A lack of attorneys qualified to handle death penalty proceedings is at the center of a backlog in appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, according to the 2008 report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

Woodford said an analysis of the report suggests it could cost $100 million more each year for the state to effective overhaul the death penalty system.

Klaas criticized the backlog of death penalty appeals cases for causing ballooning costs.

He also worries that the system would become more lenient if the death penalty is abolished, eventually allowing some people to eventually be released on parole.

“There are no guarantees whatsoever, not even an inkling of a guarantee, that replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole will guarantee these people will stay inside,” Klaas said.

Sonoma County’s top law enforcement officials said they have sworn to uphold the law, and until the death penalty is abolished, that includes supporting capital punishment.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that as a member of the California District Attorneys Association she opposes abolishing the death penalty.

However Ravitch, who has never asked a jury to return a verdict of death, said the lengthy appeals process may not be in the best interests of victims or their families.

“One of the advantages of a life-without-parole sentence is that it gives the victim a sense of finality,” Ravitch said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said he hopes that the measure prompts an analysis of costs among states that use the death penalty, but he stopped short of taking a stand on the issue.

“I would hope the death penalty could be administered in an efficient way,” Freitas said. “But I want whatever the victims want. Some victims don’t support it, but for other victims, it gives them a sense of closure.”

The measure’s provision that the projected savings of $100 million over 3.5 years are to be diverted to local law enforcement agencies is a promise unlikely to materialize, Santa Rosa Police Chief Schwedhelm said.

“This money is magically going to flow from the state to the local level or county level? That just starts blurring the issue.”

Klaas said that he will be able to stop thinking about his daughter’s killer once the man is executed.

“Who the hell do they think Richard Allen Davis is? Don’t they get what he did, don’t they know that Salcido slit the throats of his own daughters?” Klaas said. “Why are they so hell-bent on protecting these individuals?”

But for Toni MacDonald and her husband, Jim, who still live in Santa Rosa where they raised their son, the execution of his killer will bring no closure.

“It’s selfish in a way, but to me for him to lie down on a gurney and get a shot and go to sleep, that’s too easy,” MacDonald said. “I want him to live in that cell. I hope he lives to be 99 or 100 years old. That is punishment.”

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

26 Responses to “Should they live or die?”

  1. Coral says:

    @ LUKE Wow! I agree with all your posts.
    I wondered if that ‘prosecutor’ was from Sonoma County???? I am close to a simular event that evolved under a past D A….
    Indeed, innocents have been executed throughout history. Juries convict on ‘Theories’ and unconscionable prosecutors have no fear of punishment for misconduct. They pull out all the stops in convincing Jurors that they should convict based on reasonable theories rather than solid evidence or actual proof. Jurors mostly have absolutely no idea that they will be manipulated into going for this low standard! Jurors really need to realize that if there is no proof or credible witness then perhaps they are being presented with a convincing theory…
    If a person is a juror, that person should ask them self; If I was in the defendants seat, and He was in mine, would this be enough real proof of Actual Guilt? Could I be convicted on little more than an assumption of guilt?
    Scary… very scary. Pay attention Jurors and don’t believe that every Defendant is guilty just because they have been charged. Luke, was your friend’s nightmare caused by sonoma county Prosecutors?

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  2. DeeDee says:

    maybe adopt the China system. Family members are charged for the bullet and body parts are sold for organ transplant.


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  3. Steve Klausner says:

    Anyone concerned about to much power in the hands of the State would put elimination of the Death Penalty at the top of their list.

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  4. Sarkyfish says:

    New law: any person convicted and sentenced to death goes immediately to the front of the line for appeals (state and federal) and if an appeal does not overturn a conviction, said person must be executed within six months of sentencing.

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  5. Richard Smith says:

    I feel like many of you,that the justice system is broken, and millions of dollars are wasted keeping convicted death row inmates housed. We should either get rid of the death penalty or carry it out more quickly after a conviction. The key word here is “conviction”. After a person has had a fair trial,and convicted by a jury of his or her peers, there should be a very short time limit for appeals. The families and friends of victims, and those convicted, need a more rapid closure . The way the system is now, the death penalty is certainly no deterrent. The term “swift justice”, seems to have been lost somewhere along the line.If a family member or friend of mine was the victim of one of these awful crimes, I would be the first in line to pull the lever.Another broken system, another example of wasted time and money,another example of the people losing control of their own government.

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  6. Reality Check says:

    “The voters in California are not going to vote to abolish the death penalty.”

    Possibly quite true. But neither are they likely to clean up an appellate process that renders its legal status moot. What value is a law that has become unenforceable?

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  7. dave says:

    Adopt the Texas way. Credible witnesses to the crime or conffesion 1 failed appeal it’s over. Good night

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  8. truth in law says:

    By the time thay have commited a crime warranting the death sentence how many other crimes have they committed? How many people need to suffer because of one persons greed and laziness? People who work and follow the rules of society don’t seem to end up being more of a drain on the rest of us.

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  9. Luke Williams says:

    One last thing. The reason I mention the innocent is because I have a relative who was found guilty of murder and did 16 years in prison before they finally found the actual killer. They release him and paid him $800,000. I still do not know how they could have found him guilty or even have charged him in the first place. I really think the D.A. knew he was innocent, but still prosecuted him. That is scary. But true.

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  10. Luke Williams says:

    If our justice system’s goal was to find the truth. If every prosecutor had the character of never wanting to put an innocent person in jail or prison and honestly searched for the truth and only tried the guilty, many would support the death penalty. People like Richard Allen Davis deserves to suffer a long, slow, painful death. Not life on death row.

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  11. Luke Williams says:

    The problem begins with a justice system that is more like a competition. You have a prosecution vs. Defendant. Both sides will lie, cheat, and do whatever they can to win, regardless of the truth. This creates a system in which some innocent people are found guilty and some guilty people get off free. Most peoples biggest fear in using the death penalty is not in killing the guilty, but in the possibility of killing the innocent. Another problem is all of the dirt bags making money off the system. Their decisions are biased and rarely made with the idea of doing what it right.

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  12. Steveguy says:

    Give them life without parole, and turn them loose on the yard.

    Problem solved.

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  13. Jay says:

    One of the biggest issues that people do not realize is that a large portion of inmate PREFER to be in prison. From there they are able to manage criminal enterprises including drugs, assaults and racketeering because they are held with other criminals. They in turn direct people outside of jails and prisons to commit crimes while they reap the rewards.

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  14. Big Jim says:

    If we had an Anders Breivik in California, wwouldn’t we want the death penalty? I sure would.

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  15. Jason Brown says:

    The voters in California are not going to vote to abolish the death penalty.

    The problem is not the death penalty, its the political left and the so called justice system which allows endless apeals for these monsters on death row.

    In politically correct California, the death penality is a no go area in the liberal press and liberal politicians.

    The reality is a majority of Californians favor the death penality for the scum who have murdered children, the innocent and people they have robbed, tortured and killed in unspeakable ways.

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  16. Missy says:

    They’re sociopaths. There is no cure for sociopaths. None. Science has not come up with a cure for that mental disorder yet. Maybe one day……one can hope that with proper medicine and therapy….although plenty of people with mental issues don’t take their meds and havoc results from it.

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  17. bear says:

    So is the death penalty a true and deserved punishment? Is it equally applied?

    I think a lot of conservatives believe the death penalty immediately consigns the criminal to hell.

    Perhaps so, but maybe not. I’d rather punish these folks in real life for as long as possible. I’d pay for that, but not the loser, non-violent minimal criminals who clog our prisons and cost us billions.

    After life in prison and no parole, let God deal with them.

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  18. Money Grubber says:


    It isn’t the lawyers who have taken over the justice system.

    Its the public employees including the judges, the prosecutors, the jailers.

    Who benefits when an inmate sits in his death row cell sucking up a million bucks a year in hearings and enhanced security systems?

    Who benefits? Not the inmates. Not the victim families. Not the public.

    The beneficiary to a California style “death penalty” is and are the public employee parasites who live an entire career while all arguments are first played out in state court and then repeated in federal court over two or three decades.

    Oh, and lets not forget that the California “justice” system just INSISTED on building a brand new death chamber in SQ at the cost of millions of tax dollars knowing full well that it would likely never be used.

    Nice work by the usual public employee parasite bureaucrats. Just more money they steal from us and waste in the sole goal of keeping themselves in their cozy jobs.

    Abolish the death penalty. Its a farce designed to keep the public employees on their cozy, overpaid, and overperked jobs.

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  19. Money Grubber says:

    I read a news item about three years ago in which a death row inmate had a court hearing regarding his case. The inmate was refusing further appeals and refusing any suggestion that he sit in his death row cell further.

    In other words, that inmate decided death was better than sitting out the farce of a justice system that couldn’t make up its mind for the 20 years he had sat there going through “justice.”

    The Federal Judge involved openly stated that he would “help” the inmate and stop the execution if only the inmate requested it.

    The problem? The very idea that a Federal Judge could block a law at his own personal whim with zero relation to the actual law involved showed me that the death penalty was a total farce that was open to manipulation by both politicians and judges alike.

    That particular inmate was not alone in his decision to deny further appeals on his behalf. There are dozens of such inmates each year who refuse further death row appeals designed to keep them living on death row while the “justice system” workers like the judges, prosecutors, jailers, and lawyers all suck up the tax money involved for a cozy life long living.

    Finally, this year, the Senior Justice of the California Supreme Court, admitted in public that the state death penalty “is broken” and should be abolished.

    I agree with her.

    The current system has been nothing but a tool of government “justice workers” to keep themselves employed in the cozy world of public employment for too long.

    For those of you who think that sitting on death row for two decades is better than a life sentence, those inmates who are refusing appeals can inform you that you are wrong.

    The inmates have suffered mightily while the greedy public employee system manipulated everything to the advantage of themselves.

    The victim’s families AND the sentenced inmates have been held hostage to a “justice system” that is itself criminal.

    Abolish the charade at the upcoming election. Its too important an issue to leave to the public employee parasites.

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  20. Reality Check says:

    A good attorney will tell you that any conviction is evidence of an inadequate defense. Given enough legal talent, time and money, an attorney should be able to prevent a conviction. If not, they’ll get it overturned on appeal. Somewhere between the initial arrest and sentencing by the trial judge, a procedural mistake was make.

    That is the approach of death penalty opponents. Appeal and then appeal again, usually about things that have nothing to do guilt or innocence. Also of course complain loudly that the death penalty cost too much, and the lengthy appeal process is itself cruel and unusual punishment.

    Never mind that death penalty opponents are responsible for this deplorable situation.

    It’s also worth pointing out that proponents of replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment are also opposed to life sentences without the opportunity of parole.

    The issue rests with California voters, not a comforting thought.

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  21. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    It’s not about money. It’s more about the moral issue for me. I recognize these people are monsters, but I think the punishment would be worse if we just put them in with the regular population and forget about them. Not put them out of their misery, but make them survive in the general prison population. Right now they are “coddled” on death row. They will die a natural death there as well. They get all these appeals, there aren’t enough lawyers to take the cases, the cost is high, and I’m sick and tired of them showing up in the paper periodically reminding me of their monstrous crimes.
    We also wouldn’t have to worry about putting someone to death if they are innocent (and I’m not saying Davis or the others are innocent but I do believe some executed were innocent when I look at states like Texas).
    I voted against the death penalty last time and I will this time.

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  22. Commonsense says:

    Where are the stats on how much it’s expected to cost to house these inmates for life? Where is the data on how and why it’s takes so very long to execute their death sentence, especially in cases like Salcido and Davis. I’m not aware of any real issues that are appealable in those cases, so why do we allow so many appeals in cases that are as clear as that?
    Overall, I don’t believe that abolishing the death penatly will save the State substantial sums in the long run and I do share the concern voiced in the article regarding whether a “life” sentence will remain as such. I can forsee life in prison becoming something that must be “re-found” again and again over time, similar to our SVP laws.

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  23. James Todd says:

    Since when did justice become an issue about money?

    If they want to save money then they will shorten the appeals process.

    Salcido and Davis are just two examples of the pieces of filth currently sitting on Death Row. If you want to save that money then kill them NOW!

    Take out the trash on Death Row and that will save a TON of money!

    Does ANYONE think the appeals process should take any longer than 5 years from date of initial sentencing? Personally, i think two is more than adequatge but really, who can argue with 5? The fact it has taken this long and that Davis and Salcido show that there is NOT a failure in the4 Death Penalty itself, but in the drawn out appeals process and that is all thanks to LAWYERS!

    KEEP the Death Penalty and fix the appeals process.

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  24. Grapevines says:

    Personally I don’t care if we zap them quickly or let them sit and rot for the rest of their lives. What does gall me though is that criminals nowadays facing sentences in which the choice is either life or death row, want death row.

    That’s because if your on death row, your housed in a cell by yourself. You have your own TV to watch, and have unlimited access to the library where your supposed to be researching your “appeal.” Also your cell is larger than the ones that are shared by two prisoners in general population.

    Just abolishing the death penalty does not go far enough in addressing the financial burden this places on the State. Abolish the plush living conditions also. Start housing these scumbags two to a cell in general population. No special privileges, no goodies etc. It’s time we started treating them like the scum they are and had the punishment more fit the offense.

    But the liberal lovers here would throw a fit before they allowed that to happen.

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  25. Graeme Wellington says:

    Can we clean out the current death row by actually executing them before we abolish the death penalty? Richard Allen Davis and Salcido have been on death row longer than the combined age of all their victims. What about the public’s right to see justice done under the law? Look who was saved the last time California abolished the Death Penalty: Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I can remember the big deal about Caryl Chessman being executed for rape when that was still a capitol offense.

    Personally, I think this is a plot for the state to close down San Quentin and redevelop into the most valuable land in California – which actually isn’t a bad idea. Wipe that prison off the map and that’s about as beautiful a spot in the Bay Area there is.

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  26. Skippy says:

    As long as we allow lawyers to own and operate oue State/Nation, we wil be unable to dispense justice in any reasonable form.
    Nowhere in any Constitution does it say lawyers are our Masters, yet we have let them take over.
    The only reason death row scum survive is to allow lawyers to mine the system endlessly for dollars.
    It is long past time for State and Federal legislators to figuratively castrate the Trial Lawyers Assoc. and the ABA to remind them that we the people, not they the bloodsucking attorneys own this country.
    As far as death penalties go, a 24 month maximum after initial conviction is all they get prior to execution.
    If the system cannot reverse their sentence by then, the system is broken.
    But we already knew that.

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