When jurors decided yesterday that Scott Peterson should receive the death penalty, they bucked a national and statewide trend. With a notoriously long appeals process and a massive backlog of inmates on California’s death row, it’s also a decision that may never be carried out, says the San Jose Mercury News. The process takes so long, legal analysts said, that Peterson is far more likely to die of natural causes than from a lethal injection. “The math is very simple,” said former San Mateo County prosecutor Chuck Smith. “We have 640 men on death row. We execute one person about every three years. He’s at the very end of that group. He’s going to die in prison.” California has executed just 10 men since 1978, when the state restored capital punishment. During that time, 22 condemned inmates have died of natural causes and 13 others have committed suicide. There hasn’t been an execution in nearly three years. The average length of time spent on death row of the past three inmates executed was roughly 20 years.
Peterson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, has already vowed to seek a new trial and to pursue “every and all appeals.” A 2002 Mercury News review of California’s death penalty system found that death sentences are often reversed for problems including incompetent defense lawyers to mistakes by trial judges. Since 1987, more than 80 death sentences have been overturned, including six this year. Some experts said that given the anti-death penalty trends, as well as the facts in the Peterson case, they were especially surprised by the jury’s decision. “In a case like this, where there’s no prior criminal history and a family that cares for the person, it’s unheard of,” said Oakland defense attorney Dan Horowitz.