Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

California Death Row Inmates Remain Stuck In High Security Limbo


This fall, people here in California might get to vote on two very different ballot measures about capital punishment - one to ban the death penalty and another to expedite executions. California still sentences convicted murderers to death, but there hasn't been an execution here since 2006. That's when a federal judge suspended capital punishment. Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco recently got a rare tour of San Quentin Prison, and he found death row inmates stuck in high-security limbo.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: California's death row population just keeps growing. There are now about 745 condemned inmates. Most of them are here at San Quentin prison. Between them and the outside - lots of locks and keys. They're some of the state's most notorious criminals. Some were serial killers, the details of their crimes - horrifying. In the prison yard, inmate Robert Galvan takes a break from doing pullups to talk through a chain-link fence.

What's life like here?

ROBERT GALVAN: Day at a time, you know? Day at a time - work out - same routine every day - get up, eat breakfast, work out

SHAFER: Galvan is 42 years old. He's standing, shirtless, outside, in a 12-by-9 rectangular cage. His body is covered in tattoos. Galvan was sent to San Quentin a few years ago, after killing a cell mate at another California prison. Through the bars, Galvan says he deserves to be on death row, waiting a lethal injection that is now on hold. I ask if men here think there will be any more executions.

GALVAN: Some think it ain't going to happen. Some think it's - you know, they're going to start firing it up, you know? But me, I'll cross that bridge when it come - when I come to it.

SHAFER: Even without the imminent threat of execution, the decades of uncertainty weight on some inmates. Charles Crawford II was convicted of a double homicide he committed at the age of 22. He's 41 now.

CHARLES CRAWFORD II: If they're going to do it, you know, do it and just, you know, not just have us sitting here for 20 or 30 years.

SHAFER: That's the average time it takes before an inmate is executed here. In another part of the yard, five inmates shoot hoops on an enclosed cement court. One of them, Steven Livaditis, takes a break from playing basketball to talk through the fence.

STEVEN LIVADITIS: I attempted to rob a jewelry store, and people ended up being killed because of my actions.

SHAFER: Why did you shoot him?

Livaditis seems to be fighting back tears.

LIVADITIS: Because I was a - I was an evil person. I don't know any other way to put it, you know?

SHAFER: Livaditis, now 51 years old, says he's turned to religion, and if he's executed, it'll be God's will. Most of the death row inmates are kept in East Block. It's loud and sort of dark. There's no privacy. As I walk past, one guy is showering. Another sits on a toilet inside his 6-by-9 cell. Many just lie on their beds or sit, reading, writing or watching TV.

RAYMOND ANTHONY LEWIS: My name is Raymond Anthony Lewis. I'm in San Quentin State Prison on death row, where I've been since March 13 of 1991 - going on 25 years.

SHAFER: Lewis stands in his cell, leaning close to the bars, reinforced by metal mesh. Unlike many inmates here, Lewis admits to his crime, and he's tired of waiting to be put to death.

LEWIS: Just recently, within the last year, I've asked my attorneys to stop my appeal.

SHAFER: Why is that?

LEWIS: Because this is not living. It's just existing. There's nothing here. There's no emotions, no life

SHAFER: You think most people here would rather be dead than be living here?

LEWIS: Oh, yes, without a doubt. Without a - we talk about it every day when we out on the yard. People are just tired of it. The state is not killing nobody. You know, guys here are dying from - either from health reasons, old age or committing suicide.

SHAFER: That's one thing I noticed - how old many of these inmates are. Some look so frail it's almost hard to imagine the terrible, gruesome crimes they committed, all of them, including Lewis, waiting for an execution day that might never come.

LEWIS: This is the hardest part. Dying is easy.

SHAFER: One-hundred-and-seventeen condemned inmates have died since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Only 15 were executed. Most died of natural causes. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer at San Quentin prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer