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Can’t Kill for Trying

In the end, the tearful appeal by his sister did not save the life of convicted killer Jaturun Siripongs. Nor did the last-minute pleas for clemency from a former San Quentin warden, the Thai government, the husband of one of the victims, and two of the jurors who had voted to impose the death penalty. No, in the end, it was Governor Pete Wilson who saved Siripongs — albeit unintentionally.

As expected, Wilson denied clemency and ordered Siripongs’ execution by lethal injection to proceed as scheduled at 12:01 a.m. on November 17. But it was this denial that opened the door for new litigation and ended up sparing the life of the 43-year-old former Buddhist monk — at least for now.

Siripongs had already been moved to San Quentin’s pre-execution death cell and eaten his last meal of grapes, papaya and bitter melon soup when the order came down from U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney.

Siripongs’ attorney Linda Schilling got word from a colleague as she sat in a small, damp trailer on the San Quentin grounds, waiting to be ushered into the execution witness room. "Serious questions have been raised" about the clemency process, Chesney declared, ordering a stay. Those questions hinge on whether the governor misled Siripongs’ attorneys about the kind of information he would consider when deciding whether to grant clemency. Specifically, Chesney wants to examine whether Wilson declined to request information that called into question Siripongs’ guilt in the 1981 killings, and then turned around and based his denial of clemency on the absence of that very information.

The governor, who has never granted clemency on a death-penalty case, appealed Chesney’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both refused to lift the stay. Schilling visited Siripongs the day after the stay was issued and described her client as "thankful and grateful to be alive." Siripongs was convicted of strangling to death the owner of a market in Garden Grove, stabbing to death an employee, and stealing more than $25,000 in cash and jewelry.

A hearing before Chesney, a Clinton appointee and former Bay Area prosecutor, is scheduled for December 3. But even if Chesney lifts the stay, chances are slim that Wilson will see Siripongs put to death during his watch — governor-elect Gray Davis will take office before a new date is likely to be set.

How this Democratic, avowedly pro-death-penalty governor will handle the case is anyone’s guess. Schilling is optimistic. "Jay Siripongs has a unique and compelling clemency application," she says. "And I think that bodes well before any governor."

—Sara Catania

Yo Quiero Burrito-Eaters

It’s the kind of small-town politics that most Californians assume went out of style long ago, or at least about the same time Bob Dornan was finally ousted from office by Loretta Sanchez. But in Bell Gardens, a Southeast city that is more than 90 percent Latino, a group of Latino police officers say racism is the stuff of city government.

Now that group of 19 former and current cops are suing their boss, Chief Fred erick Freeman, who they say not only failed to promote qualified officers but also often referred to Latinos as "bullfighters, burrito eaters and fucking wetbacks."

Freeman has steadfastly denied the allegations. And up until now the case appeared an example of he said/they said. Last month, however, Freeman’s accusers got a bit of help from none other than the chief himself. The damage was done during an all-day deposition, excerpts of which have been popping up on the Internet.

Among the more colorful exchanges between Freeman and Brad Gage, the attorney representing some of the 19 employees, is a question of word usage.

"Have you ever called Latinos ‘wetbacks’ at any time in your life?" asks Gage.

"Oh, I’m sure in my life I have used the term ‘wetback,’ as probably we all have," says Freeman.

"Well, not me," says Gage.

While psychoanalysts can speculate over what motivated Freeman’s candor, the chief offered some insight when responding to another question.

"I can’t give you an exact time, but I’m not going to pretend I’m Mark Fuhrman and get on the stand and say I’ve never made a comment," says Freeman.

Among the other terms Freeman admitted using to describe Latinos is "spic." But fearing he might be misunderstood, he offered this etymological explanation:

"Oh, I can imagine at some point in growing up and living in Southern California, as I’m sure you have, these terms are not uncommon. However, that is not something that I use in a business or professional context whatsoever, nor do I use it on a daily basis or anything like that."

While linguists might find the exchange interesting, Bell Gardens residents are getting a little worried about how much all this is costing them.

The legal bills are mounting and now top $250,000, with the city’s portion of the tab in excess of $100,000, according to sources.

Freeman and his attorney didn’t respond to OffBeat’s calls of que pasa.

But it’s not all bad news for the chief. He recently got a one-year extension on his $84,000-a-year contract.

—Sandra Hernandez

Twist and Shout

Though our faith wavered during the three-quarters of an hour we spent waiting for a packed-to-the-gills bus recently, OffBeat remains confident that things are improving at the MTA. The board voted last month to buy 2,095 new buses by 2004, almost satisfying their harshest critics over at the Bus Riders Union. And Proposition A should produce a little accountability. But what we’re really excited about is their announcement that they’re employing more androids. A recent press release boasts that "gyrating automatons," will be painting more than twice as many buses in 1999 as they did in ’96. "The combination of new buses, better overall service and re-painted buses will instill a sense of pride in passengers and bus operators alike," vaunts the release.

What about more space?

—Ben Ehrenreich