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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Rother

Taking a look at the death penalty

The first four of these killers are all on death row at San Quentin, a men's prison in northern California. What do they have in common? I've written books about them: (from left to right) Skylar Deleon and John F. Kennedy (DEAD RECKONING), Wayne Adam Ford (BODY PARTS) and Marcus Wesson (WHERE HOPE BEGINS/DEADLY DEVOTION).

I've often wondered if they ever gotten together on the yard (or in the psych unit) to chat about life on death row, or if my name ever came up in conversation. I know that Kristin Rossum, who was convicted for poisoning her husband but only got LWOP (life without the possibility of parole), refers to me only as "the woman who shall not be named." I guess she didn't like my book about her, POISONED LOVE.

I've also included Charles Manson (HUNTING CHARLES MANSON), because he was originally given a death sentence, but it was commuted in 1972 when the Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional. Manson and his codefendants, who had all been given the death penalty, all had their sentences reduced to life in prison, which meant they were eligible for parole. The death penalty was reinstituted in 1976 and Manson died in prison in late 2017. He stopped attending his own parole hearings because he knew he'd never be released.

When I write books about death penalty cases, I generally don't take a position either way on the issue of death sentences, because I believe it’s best for an investigative journalist and author like me to stay neutral on such topics.

But I do want to state for the record that while I was still working as a daily newspaper reporter, covering jails and prisons for The San Diego Union-Tribune, I thought it was important to personally witness an execution so I knew what I was writing about and what was at stake.

I had to go to San Quentin twice for the same execution, returning some months later after the inmate received a last-minute stay. I got almost no sleep the night before my first trip, and I hardly slept the night I finally watched Tommy Thompson be executed in 1998.

I stayed up writing my news story until 3 or 4 A.M., then got up early to interview the folks who sat in the seats facing Thompson to find out what they had witnessed. Standing off the side with the other media, I had a different, limited perspective.

Thompson went to his grave avowing his innocence. Years after he and his codefendant were tried and convicted, his codefendant said that he witnessed Thompson having what appeared to be consensual sex with a woman who was later found murdered. The special circumstance that made Thompson eligible for the death penalty was rape, and without that act to provide the motive for the murder of the young female victim, it’s possible that Thompson was telling the truth and only helped his buddy bury the woman’s body. Two jurors came forward once they learned this, and said they would have voted otherwise at trial if they’d known this before.

Given these facts, it was disturbing to watch him die, especially as he repeatedly pulled himself up off the table to mouth the words “I love you” to a woman in the stands, on the other side of the glass.

Now that I’ve released an extensively revised and updated edition of my book, DEAD RECKONING (WildBlue Press), which features two convicted killers who are sitting on death row at San Quentin, I thought this was a good opportunity to explore national trends surrounding the issue of capital punishment.

On a state-by-state basis, the primary trend has been a downturn in the number of states supporting the death penalty. Within the past 15 years, eight states have abandoned the practice through legislation or the courts.

There also has been a decline in the number of actual executions, which are highly geographically concentrated in just five states: Texas leads the pack, with half of them occurring there. The others are Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Overall, the majority of the cases leading to executions are tried in only 2 percent of the nation’s counties.

To read more about this issue, as well as a plethora of national statistics, you can read the blog I wrote for WildBlue Press here.

To buy a copy of DEAD RECKONING as an ebook or trade paperback, please click here.

If you'd like to buy a signed copy, you can email me at

Thanks for reading!


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