In California, families of murder victims Amber Dubois and Chelsea King agreed to a life sentence without parole for the girls’ killer, John Albert Gardner. Brent King, Chelsea’s father, said that agreeing with County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ decision not to seek the death penalty for his daugther’s killer was “torturous,” but so would have been a death penalty trial and the years of appeals that follow. Dumanis said there was enough evidence to convict Gardner for Chelsea’s murder, but she agreed to a life sentence without parole in exchange for Gardner’s confession because it was the only way to convict him of Amber’s death and to find her body. In explaining this difficult decision, the district attorney called California’s death penalty “a hollow promise.”

Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, more death row inmates (72) have died from natural causes, suicide or other reasons than by execution (13). On average, California’s death row inmates have spent 17 years on death row. Some, like David Westerfield, waited years before the state appointed them legal representation for their initial appeal. It took the state five years to appoint an attorney to represent Westerfield in his automatic appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

Dumanis said that getting a guilty plea from Gardner spared Amber and Chelsea’s families the pain of trial and post-conviction appeals, and years of suffering. Among the reasons for agreeing to life imprisonment without parole in Gardner’s case, Brent King cited the need for Amber’s family to have closure, as well as the need to protect his teenage son from years of further trauma. He said, “While our unequivocal first choice is the death penalty, we acknowledge that in California that penalty has become an empty promise.”

(T. Figueroa and M. Walker, “State’s death penalty lacks urgency,” North County Times, April 17, 2010). See also Arbitrariness and Victims.