Why Clarence Ray Allen's life should be spared
Friday, January 6, 2006
While warden of San Quentin for 10 years, I supervised reactivation of the gas chamber and California's first two executions in the modern era. I unhesitatingly served Clarence Ray Allen, who is scheduled to die Jan. 17, with his first death warrant for ordering three murders from his prison cell in 1980. I firmly believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment and that the state of California has the right to enforce its criminal laws. But I also believe it must be administered in accordance with civilized standards of decency to maintain its integrity. Because the execution of Allen would now be inhumane and violate those standards, I urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency in this extraordinary case.
When I visited Allen in December and reviewed his prison file, I found a man who presents absolutely no risk to prison staff or public safety. Legally blind, hard of hearing and of frail voice, he cannot even stand up by himself. He needs a walker to move around within his cell and a wheelchair everywhere else. In the glassed visiting cubicle where I met with him, he was truly a pathetic sight: aged, downcast, oblivious to his surroundings, cuffed to his wheelchair and utterly defeated.
Furthermore, Allen has been virtually a model prisoner on Death Row in the nearly quarter century he has been confined there. During my tenure, he was known as a compliant and trouble-free inmate on the row, and his subsequent record upholds that reputation. Staff interactions with him, which I observed both as warden and more recently, have always been of mutual courtesy and respect. No inmate can fake such good behavior for so many years.
Allen's capital crimes were repugnant, but they bear little on the assessment of the threat he poses. They occurred long ago and under very different circumstances. Time and age have wrought unusual changes in Allen, now 75 years old. After near brushes with death from heart attacks and execution dates, he is looking to make peace at the end of his life, whether spared execution or not. As one who dedicated his career to the field of corrections and has considerable knowledge of inmates and their behavior, I find it unthinkable that Allen would engage in conduct remotely resembling that reflected in his convictions.
There is no question in my mind that long-term confinement in the substandard conditions of Death Row, coupled with San Quentin's long-standing problems with the delivery of adequate medical care, have contributed immeasurably to Allen's declining health. As warden, I found those conditions unacceptable and recommended construction of a new facility. When that was not undertaken, we were required to house the Death Row overflow in the prison's East Block, although it is an outmoded, antiquated five-tiered cellblock unsafe for staff and inmates alike -- and totally inappropriate for the housing of condemned prisoners. This is where Allen has been housed for years -- ironically, because his disabled condition made the traditional Death Row no longer safe for him.
Through all these pressures, Allen has maintained his conforming conduct, which I have every confidence he will sustain as long as he lives. If he were relieved of his death sentence and placed in regular prison housing, prison policy dictates that he spend at least the following five years -- considerably longer than he is likely to live -- in close custody in a maximum-security prison. This confinement would provide not only more than enough security to house him safely, but also the modern resources for attending to his needs.
It will be particularly difficult for the execution of Allen to be accomplished in a dignified way. It is impossible to wheel him into the chamber. Entry with a walker would be problematic, but the manacles in which the condemned man is led to the execution chamber make even that aid impossible. Allen will literally have to be carried into the chamber for his execution. That will demean not only Allen but also the prison staff, who will be required to participate in the execution of a man too old and feeble even to enter the chamber under his own power.
Allen's situation presents us with the question of how infirm does a human being have to be before we decide that we should not execute him. Must we insist on dragging a dying man out of the hospital just so we can inject the chemicals that will kill him a little bit sooner? Even for those of us who are tough on crime, there comes a point where forbearance is appropriate.
Allen's execution now would be a shameful act. Given his age, his infirmities, the punishment of the many years he has already spent on Death Row, his excellent behavior during that time and the very little natural life he has remaining, sparing Allen from execution would be an act of decency, compassion and justice.
Dan Vasquez served as warden of San Quentin Prison from 1983 to 1993.
Page B - 9
For more info., please see the ACLU Clarence Allen webpage at: http://aclunc.org/deathpenalty/allen.html