As the race to become Humboldt County's next district attorney hits full stride, a trial quietly looms in the background — the first local death penalty case in decades — with the potential to bring the issue of capital punishment front and center in the campaign.
With little attention or fanfare, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos is seeking the death penalty against Jason Anthony Warren in a case scheduled to go to trial in May. If a jury ultimately convicts and condemns Warren, it would be the first time Humboldt has sent someone to death row in nearly 25 years.
If history is any indication, Humboldt County's electorate is deeply divided on the issue of capital punishment. Two years ago, a state ballot measure — Proposition 34 — unsuccessfully sought to repeal the death penalty. In Humboldt County, 50.65 percent of voters were for it and 49.35 percent voted against it. For the four candidates currently vying to replace Gallegos next year, the issue might prove a delicate one.
District attorneys in California wield a tremendous amount of discretion, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the application of the state's capital punishment laws. Elisabeth Semel, a professor of law at U.C. Berkeley who directs the school's death penalty clinic, is fond of referring to the state's death penalty as a patchwork quilt, noting that someone once said, "California has 58 counties and 58 death penalties."
Critics point out the varying rates at which counties pursue the death penalty. Of the 746 inmates currently on California's death row, one was convicted in San Francisco County versus 82 in Riverside, according to statistics from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. More than 30 percent of the state's death row inmates were convicted in Los Angeles County.
Currently, Humboldt County has two condemned inmates awaiting execution at San Quentin Prison: Curtis Floyd Price and Jackie Hovarter. Price was convicted in 1986 for a pair of murders, including the slaying of a witness who testified against the Aryan Brotherhood, of which Price was a member. Hovarter was convicted in 1990 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a teenage girl. Warren could become the third.
The 29-year-old, who has a violent history, stands accused of torturing and killing a Hoopa woman, Dorothy Ulrich, on the morning of Sept. 26, 2012 before taking a car from her residence and driving to Eureka, where he allegedly intentionally hit three runners, killing Suzanne Seemann and seriously injuring Jessica Hunt and Terri Vroman-Little. A gag order was issued in the case shortly after Warren was charged, preventing officials from speaking publicly about the case. Consequently, Gallegos has been unable to explain his rationale for pursuing the death penalty for the first time in his tenure as DA.
However, in a recent interview with the Journal discussing his decision not to pursue the death penalty in the case against Bodhi Tree, a Eureka man accused of the unprovoked killing of two people in Arcata in May 2013, Gallegos offered a few hints. He said he believes a killing is justified if committed in the defense of one's self or others but that he doesn't necessarily believe in killing as a form of punishment.
"We have to take into account the threat to the public — and the threat to citizens in custody — and I am truly and candidly of the mindset that a killing is justified if it is in defense of yourself or the defense of others," he said. "An eye for an eye doesn't save lives and doesn't bring anyone back, but if the protection of life requires it, then maybe it's appropriate. That's a decision a jury will make."
Since taking office, Gallegos has introduced a written death penalty review procedure to Humboldt County with the goal of making the decision as impartial as possible. Semel said each county's death penalty decisions are driven by whoever occupies the district attorney's office at the time.
During the first debate in the race to replace Gallegos next year, the four candidates — Allan Dollison, Elan Firpo, Maggie Fleming and Arnie Klein — were asked for their thoughts on the death penalty.
Dollison, a former deputy district attorney and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, said he supports capital punishment in limited cases. "It should be on the table," he said. Fleming, also a former deputy district attorney now working in County Counsel's office, generally agreed, saying it's a "most-extraordinary punishment" that should be reserved for certain cases. Fleming noted that, in her decades as a prosecutor, she never once felt it was appropriate for a case she was handling.
On the other end of the spectrum, Firpo said plainly she's against capital punishment. "I don't think civilized societies kill people for killing people," she said. "It just doesn't make sense." Klein, who has a 40-year history in criminal law including 20 years as a prosecutor, offered a scattershot answer. First, he said he used to believe in the punishment, noting he was a young prosecutor who felt he had God on his side and believed cops never lied. But, Klein said, he's "evolved" and now prefers pursuing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He also noted that in California, "we don't really have a death penalty, so seeking one doesn't make sense."
Klein's last point referenced the federal government's halting of California executions in 2006 due to flaws in the process.
Whether California has a death penalty or not, it's certainly paying for one. Since 1978, 107 inmates on California's death row have died. Of those, 63 died of natural causes, 22 committed suicide and only 14 have been executed, according to the department of corrections and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, over that same time period, the state has spent more than $4 billion on the death penalty, according to a 2011 Loyola Law Review study.
The death penalty question is one that — between Warren's trial and the campaign — seems destined to garner attention in the coming months. In Humboldt's immediate future, it's also one that will ultimately be decided by jurors and voters.
"All I would say is that I do understand there are two sides to the story — those who wish it would be exercised more freely and those believe it should never be pursued," Gallegos said.