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Justice for all: The death of Dennis Webb and the future of California's death penalty

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Some people are salvageable, you know. I’m not. What do you do with a man that does [not] have any feeling?” 

Dennis Duane Webb’s words are just as chilling today as when he spoke them in a San Luis Obispo courtroom 28 years ago. He said them to a jury that just found him guilty of the brutal rape, torture, and murder of a young husband and wife in Atascadero in 1987. 

“What do you do with a rabid dog?” Webb reportedly told the jurors. “Put it to sleep.”

They apparently took him at his word. Webb was sentenced to death in 1988 and shipped off to San Quentin prison to await his execution. But that day would never come. On Dec. 13, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that Webb, now 65, had been pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His cause of death has yet to be determined.

Webb did die, but not in the manner handed down by California’s criminal justice system. 

“This horrific and evil crime profoundly affected the citizens of our county and justice was delayed for the past 30 years,” SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow said in a statement issued shortly after the announcement of Webb’s death. 

Webb isn’t the first death row inmate in California to die before he could be executed. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 104 death row inmates have died before their executions could be carried out since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Seventy-one of those died of natural causes, another 25 committed suicide, and eight—including Webb—died from other or unknown causes. In that same time, just 13 inmates have actually been executed in California; 749 others are currently awaiting execution on California’s death row. Many of those are men and women, who, like Webb, have been on death row for a decade or more since their sentences were handed down.

But a recently passed ballot proposition may shorten that time for those men and women.

“It is my hope that with the recent passage of Proposition 66, it will no longer take a lifetime for the death penalty to be implemented in cases like this where it is, sadly, a deserved punishment,” Dow said in his statement on Webb’s death.

After voting down a measure that would have abolished the death penalty in the state, more than half of California voters cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 66. The measure will supposedly streamline and speed up the process leading to executions in California. As written, the proposition limits successive petitions challenging death penalty convictions, expands the total pool of lawyers qualified to defend death penalty cases, and designates the responsibility of hearing petitions to trial courts instead of the California Supreme Court. 

Those reforms will make what happened in Webb’s case less likely, according to Kent Scheidegger, a Sacramento-based attorney who helped write the proposition.

“There are [death row] inmates staying in prison so long they are effectively serving life sentences,” said Scheidegger, who earned the nickname “Mr. Death Penalty” for his years of vocal support for keeping capital punishment on the books in the state. “That’s the kind of thing we put this proposition together to stop.” 

Currently, two men sitting on California’s death row were convicted for crimes that occurred in SLO County. Michael Whisenhunt, 51, has been on death row for 20 years for the murder of his girlfriend’s 18-month-old daughter. Rex Allan Krebs, 50, has been on death row for 15 years since he was convicted of abducting, raping, and murdering two young college students in 1998.

Scheidegger said that whether the passage of Proposition 66 would expedite the execution of a specific inmate would depend on where they are in the legal and appeals process. Regardless, he maintained that those sentenced to die by the state’s hand should not be able to serve a de facto life sentence.

“There’s a big difference,” he said. “[The death penalty] is a much more severe punishment.”

But not everyone is singing the praises of the newly passed proposition. 

“We would like nothing better than a criminal justice system that is responsive and fair,” Ana Zamora, who headed the campaign to defeat the initiative, said in a statement issued in the wake of the measure’s passage. “But California just made a mistake the size of Texas. We cannot say with any certainty that California will not execute an innocent person.”

Opponents have also argued that it would cause additional delays, litigation, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. 

“We don’t yet know the full impact of this flawed measure in human, legal, or economic terms,” Zamora wrote. “But we can say for certain that nothing good will come from it.”

Opponents have already filed a petition asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate the ballot measure. The court ordered a stay on all changes to the state’s death penalty while it considers the petition. 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinnes@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

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