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Death row inmate David Murtishaw died Tuesday of a heart attack. He was sentenced to death 32 years ago for the 1978 murder of three USC film students. Had the crime occurred just nine months earlier, before the re-institution of California's death penalty law, the enormous costs attendant to capital punishment, both financial and otherwise, would have been avoided.

david leslie murtishaw

The California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice(CCFAJ), after its extensive study of the state's death penalty system, concluded that with extremely rare exceptions, death sentences are unlikely ever to be carried out. Former Chief Justice Ronald George acknowledged this when he testified before the CCFAJ and described it as "dysfunctional." Indeed, the process for reviewing death sentences is “plagued with excessive delay” in the appointment of post-conviction counsel and a “severe backlog” in the Court’s review of appeals and habeas petitions. CCFAJ's report found that it would be excessively costly to even attempt to make the system workable. The reality is that California's death penalty is broken beyond repair.

David Murtishaw's is a case in point. Three trials. Three state appeals. Three state habeas petitions. One round of federal habeas proceedings. Thirty-two years under sentence of death only to die of a heart attack. (Since 1978, while there have been 13 executions, 55 condemned inmates have died from natural causes, 19 have committed suicide, six died from other causes.)

In Murtishaw's first trial, serious errors by the trial judge, the prosecutor and Murtishaw's lawyer undermined the fairness of the verdict. In 1981, based on one of these errors -- a prosecution expert's unreliable prediction of Murtishaw's future dangerousness -- the California Supreme Court reversed the death judgment, but left the underlying murder convictions in place.

Rather than allow imposition of a sentence of life without possibility of parole, the D.A. sought and obtained another death sentence. Murtishaw was tried and the jury was instructed, however, under the wrong death penalty statute, one that did not exist at the time of the crimes. This time the California Supreme Court rejected Murtishaw's claims on appeal, but upon review in federal court the death sentence was again reversed, 20 years after it was overturned the first time.

The D.A. took Murtishaw's case to trial again in 2002, and once again Murtishaw received a death sentence. The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment just this past February, almost ten years later. Other state remedies were still pending when Murtishaw died.

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Three trials. Three state appeals. Three state habeas corpus petitions. One round of federal habeas proceedings. Thirty-two years under sentence of death only to die of a heart attack.

This is madness.

A study released in by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon found that California's death penalty system is currently costing the state about $184 million per year. Further, "since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions."

If we replaced the death penalty with life without possibility of parole, then instead of decades of costly litigation that does nothing to make us safer, we would have more resources for investigating unsolved crimes. (46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved in California every year.)

andy love

It is crazy to continue to spend $184 million every year to perpetuate a system that is broken and beyond repair. Join the effort to replace the death penalty by clicking here: SAFE California.

Andy Love
Fair and Unbalanced