Gray Davis’ resolve will be pitted against his sense of mercy this week as the new governor determines whether condemned inmate Jaturun Siripongs will live or die. Siripongs, a former Buddhist monk who has a surprising array of supporters, was convicted in 1981 in the double murder of a market owner and her employee in Garden Grove. A final clemency hearing concluded this week, and unless Davis intervenes, Siripongs will die by lethal injection on February 9.
Throughout his campaign last fall, Davis trumpeted his support for state-sanctioned executions and — not to be outdone by conservative Republican opponent Dan Lungren — promised to push for more executions. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, five men have been executed. California currently has the nation’s largest death row, with more than 500 men and women awaiting execution.
Now, for the first time, Davis must deal with a human being rather than a statistic. Siripongs’ advocates are challenging the execution based on prosecution misconduct and new evidence about an accomplice. Beyond the legal issues, however, Siripongs’ case brings to the fore troubling ethical questions about the real interests of the state.
Since his arrest, Siripongs has maintained that anaccomplice actually committed the killings, but he refused to identify that person. The prosecution mocked Siripongs’ claim during his trial, but last fall, prosecutors acknowledged that a woman named Netnapa “Noon” Vecharungsri was an accessory to the crime. During the trial, by contrast, they called this very same person to testify that she was not at the crime scene.
This new information at least warrants Siripongs a limited reprieve, his attorneys argue, so they can test hair and blood samples from the crime scene — samples that the prosecution has thus far refused to make available for DNA testing.
But actual guilt is not the only issue. In the past, California governors (excluding Pete Wilson — who never halted an execution) have commuted death sentences, based in large part on an inmate’s behavior. By all accounts, Siripongs is a model prisoner. During Siripongs’ 15 years at San Quentin, his keepers have amassed a file 1,500 pages long, with not a single negative word to be found. Instead, notations indicate Siripongs’ “unfailing respect for authority, positive relationships with other prisoners and guards and constant day to day compliance with rules and regulations.”
Siripongs’ behavior is so exemplary it prompted former warden Daniel Vasquez, who presided over the executions of Robert Alton Harris and David Edwin Mason, to act on the condemned man’s behalf. For the first time, after 34 years in the prison system, Vasquez personally wrote to the governor pleading for a condemned man’s life. “The prison as an institution greatly benefits when it recognizes meritorious and exceptional behavior by inmates,” he wrote. “Such acknowledgment promotes the overall safety of corrections staff and encourages other inmates to engage in positive behavior and to follow the example set by inmates such as Mr. Siripongs. I urge you to consider these factors favorable when considering clemency.” The warden was, in effect, arguing that the interests of the state are better served by letting Siripongs live.
Other pleas for Siripongs’ life have come from family members of both victims, two jurors from his original trial, and the Thai government, which offered to extradite Siripongs to his homeland to serve the rest of his life term.
Last week, in Missouri, it took only the personal appeal of one man — Pope John Paul II — to spare the life of a convicted killer. Short of a surprise visit from the pope, a similar outcome for Siripongs looks to be a long shot.