Death dilemma – No Nevada County criminal has faced modern execution
In April of 1881, Nevada County Sheriff E.O. Tompkins sent out an invitation to other California sheriffs for a gruesome event that he couldn’t have known was making local history.
It was the execution of Ah Luck, found guilty of murdering a fellow Chinese man on the Truckee Bridge. Luck shot and knifed the man to death and then took a hatchet to the body, local historian Max Roberts said Wednesday.
Luck was the last person executed in the county in relation to a local crime, Roberts said. Since California’s executions became a state responsibility, Nevada County prosecutors have avoided the death penalty for a variety of reasons.
Historical research and a series of interviews with historians and law officials by The Union found no local death-penalty cases in recent history.
State records show that the 640 inmates on death row in California are from the major metropolitan areas, and 70 percent are from the Southern California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura.
Donald Beardslee, who was executed by lethal injection Wednesday, was convicted of killing two San Mateo women in 1981 over a drug debt. Beardslee was on parole for a Missouri murder at the time and was the 11th person put to death since the state resumed executions in 1992.
Nevada County District Attorney Michael Ferguson said that since he first started working for the District Attorney’s Office in 1981, there have been no cases where the death penalty has been sought.
“The death penalty is reserved for monsters,” he said. “We have never had a monster we felt the jury would want to impose the death penalty on.”
Ferguson said that in order for a convict to be eligible for the death penalty, several special circumstances must be met.
“You have to have a murder case with one or more aggravating causes,” he said.
Some of these causes are: Two or more murders, at least one of which is in the first degree; murdering a police officer; committing a murder in the course of a robbery or rape; and committing a murder for financial profit.
The district attorney said he has not come across a case where the factors in support of the death penalty outweighed the factors for life in prison.
This does not mean, however, that Ferguson hasn’t dealt with cases where he thought the murderer should be put to death.
“I have personally had five or six special-circumstances cases, but we never pursued the death penalty,” he said.
The first of these cases was tried in 1987, when Jerald Hollek was found guilty of killing his 5- and 7-year-old daughters at a campground near Bowman Reservoir, east of Nevada City. He shot them with a rifle and then set his van on fire with the children inside.
At the time, Hollek was involved in a bitter custody dispute with his wife, from whom he was separated. He was supposed to return his daughters to his wife at the end of the camping trip.
Hollek used an insanity defense, making it more difficult for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty.
“I struggled with the issue and finally sent the letter saying I would not seek the death penalty,” Ferguson said. “I personally thought it was appropriate. I finally threw in the towel.”
Another case arose in 1994, when Sam Strange was found guilty of killing two 16-year-old girls. He is serving a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
During the trial, defense attorneys tried to implicate two others in the murders and raised the possibility that Strange was just a bystander.
“He didn’t have any record,” Ferguson said. “And he was only 20 at the time.”
In 2000, Daniel Pemberton was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for shooting and killing his 37-year-old girlfriend and another lover on July 10, 1999.
Pemberton was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder.
“It was a love triangle thing,” Ferguson said. “Again, there was no record. There was also an issue of whether it was premeditated.”
On Jan. 10, 2001, Scott Harlan Thorpe shot and killed three people in the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services office and Lyon’s Restaurant. Like Hollek, Thorpe used an insanity defense.
“Once I knew the mental illness was genuine, I gave up on pursuing the death penalty,” Ferguson said.
Thorpe was institutionalized.
“Everybody is doing multiple life terms except Thorpe,” Ferguson said.
The most recent murder case is that of Scott Krause, who is accused of carjacking a box truck on Jan. 6, 2004, and ramming it into a delivery van in the Brunswick Basin, killing UPS driver Drew Reynolds.
Krause is also using the insanity defense, and Ferguson said neither the suspect’s past criminal history nor the nature of the crime warrant the death penalty.
Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
About California’s death penalty
• California executions were legalized in 1852 and carried out in counties.
• Jose Gabriel was the first man executed by the state in 1893.
• Executions were originally done by hanging, switched to gas chamber in 1938, and then to the inmate’s choice of gas or injection in 1993.
• The death sentence was declared unconstitutional in 1972 and was re-instated in 1977. The next execution occurred in 1992, the first since 1967.
• Donald Beardslee, executed early Wednesday, was the 11th inmate to die since 1977.
Source: California Department of Corrections.
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