Families of Murdered Victims Spar Over California Death Penalty Propositions

Dionne Wilson and Marc Klaas share a connection no one wants to share. They both lost loved ones to unspeakable violence and the perpetrators now sit waiting out their days on California’s Death Row at San Quentin Prison.

But that’s where Klaas' and Wilson’s views of what should happen next to the condemned diverge dramatically.

The two perspectives mirror competing Death Penalty measures on California’s November ballot — one which would repeal it and the other which aims to speed up executions.

After campaigning for a death sentence for her husband’s killer, Wilson now believes Irving Ramirez, the man who gunned down her husband, San Leandro Police Officer Dan Niemi, should live out the rest of his days in prison. 

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Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A photo of San Leandro Police Officer Nels “Dan” Nieimi who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2005. (Oct. 5, 2016)

Klaas wants Richard Allen Davis, the man who kidnapped, raped and killed his 12-year-old daughter Polly Klaas in 1993 to be executed as soon as possible.

Prop. 62 is the latest attempt by death penalty foes to end the practice in California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. Prop. 66 is a counter-measure, tailored toward moving death penalty appeals to trial courts and hiring more attorneys to speed up those appeals in an effort to move along the execution of some 743 prisoners now on Death Row.

“We’re talking about baby killers, cop killers, serial killers, spree killers — and sexually sadistic psychopaths,” said Klaas, sitting in his Sausalito home surrounded by pictures of his late daughter, Polly. “To think that they deserve anything less than the sentence that’s been handed down is really a disservice to the system itself.”

When Wilson’s husband was killed in 2005, she attended nearly every day of the trial for then-25-year-old Ramirez who was convicted of the murder. Wilson pushed for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to pursue the death penalty, which it succeeded in doing.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Dionne Wilson, widow of San Leandro Police Officer Nels “Dan” Niemi wears a necklace bearing his badge number. (Oct. 5, 2016)

“I wanted the worst possible punishment,” Wilson said. “I wanted him to suffer. I wanted to pull the trigger.”

Wilson expected a sense of healing to accompany the sentence. But as the months and years rolled by, a sense of closure still eluded her. She began to visit prisons telling her story to inmates as a way of deterring them from a continued life of crime. But she emerged as the one most changed — after hearing countless stories of rough lives shaped by abusive childhoods.

“The more prisoners I talked to,” Wilson said, “the deeper my understanding grew about how unresolved trauma sometimes turns outward into violence toward others.”

Wilson’s feelings toward the death penalty changed. She now believes the sentences of condemned inmates should be changed to life without possibility of parole, and that any financial savings should be put toward crime prevention programs for at-risk youth. She now is actively campaigning across California for Prop. 62.

“I want to prevent the creation of new victims,” Wilson said. “That’s what my justice looks like. And we can’t do that when we prop up a system like this that is so broken.”

Supporters and opponents of the death penalty routinely clash over hot-button issues such as whether the death penalty actually serves as a deterrent to crime, whether innocent people face execution and whether people of color are statistically more likely to receive a capital sentence.

Klaas believes the state’s extensive appeals system is the safeguard keeping the wrongfully convicted from the execution chamber. And he supports the notion that the potential for execution turns some from more serious crimes.

“The deterrent effect of the death penalty does exist,” Klaas said. “It’s very real. And when we execute people in one year, you’re going to find less murders in the year after.”

Wilson disagrees, saying there is little evidence the Death Penalty deters crime — and adding that more than 150 people on death row across the U.S. have been exonerated of their crimes.

“If we speed it up,” Wilson said, in reference to Prop. 66, “we’re actually putting potentially innocent people in danger faster.”

California’s execution chamber has been silent since 2006 following a myriad of legal challenges over the state’s manner of lethal injections. Even after developing a court-ordered single lethal drug method, appeals have kept the state from resuming executions.

If there is a point where Klaas and Wilson agree, it’s that the state’s death penalty is in serious disarray — mired in legal issues with scant tangible results of its effectiveness as a tool of criminal justice.

But there — their paths toward healing and a sense of justice split down opposite roads, winding to places that mercifully, it’s impossible for most people to fathom.

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