Governor’s death penalty moratorium dismays SLO County officials

DA Dan Dow defends the use of the death penalty in California

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow shared his support for the death penalty after California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on death row executions. "It's the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime," Dow said.
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San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow shared his support for the death penalty after California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on death row executions. "It's the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime," Dow said.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Wednesday that he will not carry out executions of condemned inmates during his time in office, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said Newsom is defying the will of California voters and overlooks the victims of the most heinous crimes.

The county currently has three people convicted locally who are condemned to die at San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row and two pending murder cases in which the defendants are eligible for the death penalty.

On Wednesday, Dow said his office reached out to the family members of the victims in the three capital cases to offer their support and get feedback.

Though he said he understands concerns over capital punishment — issues of morality, inefficiency and cost — Dow said the death penalty has an important role in the American criminal justice system.

“I think the main reason for the death penalty is to pay a part of a huge debt that the person owes to the victim and their family and society,” Dow said. “It’s the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.”

‘Worst of the worst’

Calling capital punishment “ineffective, irreversible and immoral,” Newsom on Wednesday signed an executive order granting reprieves to all 737 Californians awaiting execution — a quarter of the country’s death row inmates, according to the Sacramento Bee.

While Newsom’s order didn’t end the death penalty in California, it means the state’s harshest criminal penalty won’t be enforced for as long as he’s governor.

Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on March 13, 2019, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.

After receiving word of the governor’s announcement Tuesday evening, Dow posted on Facebook that “Gov. Newsom is unilaterally refusing to enforce the will of the People of California,” and that the death penalty is “only reserved for the worst of the worst.”

With boxes of case files and evidence and large printouts of victims from the county’s three Death Row cases filling his office, Dow explained his position that California voters as recently as 2016 turned down Prop. 62, which would have repealed the death penalty, 53 percent to 47 percent. San Luis Obispo County voters rejected the measure by a 57-to-43-percent margin.

Conversely, Dow said, voters narrowly approved Prop. 66, a measure to streamline the death penalty process, 51 to 49 percent, and San Luis Obispo County voters solidly approved it by 54 to 46 percent.

“Californians have said pretty consistently throughout the last 30, 40 years that they’re in favor of the death penalty, so I believe the governor has an obligation to carry it out,” Dow said. “Primarily, I’m disheartened by his action because victims appear to have been an afterthought or not very high on the priority list.”

Past SLO County cases

The state hasn’t carried out an execution in 13 years, and Death Row inmates are far more likely to die of natural causes than execution.

In December 2016, Dennis Webb died of natural causes at San Quentin at the age of 65. Webb had been on Death Row since August 1988, when he was sentenced to death by a San Luis Obispo County jury for the 1987 burglary and first-degree murders of John Rainwater, 25, and Lori Rainwater, 22, of Atascadero, whose newborn and toddler were found alive at the murder scene.

With Webb’s death, there are now three former San Luis Obispo County residents condemned to die.

Richard Allen Benson was a 38-year-old parolee when he molested, tortured, and killed Nipomo resident Laura Camargo and her three children: Sterling, 23 months; Shawna, 3; and Stephanie, 4; in January 1986. Benson told a probation officer during a jailhouse interview in 1987, “I should die for what I did.”

Michael Whisenhunt was convicted in 1996 for torturing and murdering his girlfriend’s baby.

Rex Krebs was convicted in 2001 of separately kidnapping, torturing, and killing 20-year-old college students Aundria Crawford and Rachel Newhouse.

Dennis Webb
In a July 1988 photo, Dennis Webb points to a tattoo that marks his first murder. He claimed to have murdered five people before being convicted of the murder of John and Lori Rainwater of Atascadero. David Middlecamp

A mother speaks

Gail Crawford, mother of Aundria Crawford, said by phone Wednesday that she wasn’t surprised by Newsom’s announcement, but she disagrees with the decision.

Monday marked 20 years since the day of her daughter’s abduction.

“I think it’s an appropriate punishment,” Gail Crawford said. “I don’t have a choice as to what Newsom does, but I feel like he’s one person who thinks he knows better than the entire state. I disagree with him.”

She said that even if Krebs isn’t executed, she wants him to live the rest of his life on Death Row and not in the general population.

She added that Krebs and others who might have had abusive childhoods shouldn’t be treated too leniently.

“They let Charles Manson live his life in jail after all the heinous things he did, and he was making money off selling T-shirts,” Crawford said. “All of these guys should have been put to death.”

newhouse crawford.jpg
Rachel Newhouse, left, and Aundria Crawford, right, were killed by Rex Allan Krebs.

As a prosecutor, now-retired San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice put was responsible for securing the death penalty for both Krebs and Webb.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Trice called the governor’s moratorium on executions a “totally unprecedented, somewhat stunning decision.”

“It pretty much turns its back on the voters in this state who voted on this twice, and questions the validity of the (decisions) of the juries,” Trice said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Trice said the moratorium not only applies to condemned inmates such as Krebs, but also to infamous serial killers such as Charles Ng and “Tool Box Killer” Lawrence Bittaker.

Asked his thoughts on Webb’s natural causes death and the length of time it takes for capital punishment to be carried out, Trice said it’s disappointing.

“It should not take 20 to 30 years to resolve, especially in these very clear cases,” Trice said.

‘A life for a life’

Patricia Ashbaugh was one of several attorneys to defend Krebs in his trial in Monterey County. Now the head of SLO Defenders, the San Luis Obispo law firm that contracts public defender services to the county, she has a different take.

“Individually, I’m very pleased with the governor’s announcement and granting a reprieve,” Ashbaugh said. “I think it’s a first step and the sign of a growing trend in the U.S. and California that citizens are looking at the death penalty as something that is not morally appropriate.”

Defense attorney Patricia Ashbaugh and Rex Krebs. San Luis Obispo Tribune file photo

Asked about the results of 2016’s dual death penalty initiatives, Ashbaugh said they are far from revealing the true will of the voters, citing the narrow margins. She also believes many voters were confused by the language in both initiatives.

“Put to the vote again, I think the results will be very clear,” she said.

Asked whether she thinks families of victims in the most heinous cases are owed what Dow called “the ultimate punishment,” she said not all survivors want the perpetrator killed.

“There certainly are different perspectives on the death penalty, but there are many, many families that do not seek that as punishment for an individual who has taken a loved one,” she said. “I think a life for a life is not something that all people endorse, even though they have different stages of anger.”

‘A very sobering decision’

There are currently two murder cases making their way through San Luis Obispo Superior Court in which the defendants are death-penalty eligible.

Carlo Alberto Fuentes Flores of Paso Robles was arraigned on a murder charge in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Dec. 21 for the suspected murder of Nancy Woodrum. Joe Johnston

Carlo Fuentes Flores, 42, stands accused of raping and killing Paso Robles resident Nancy Woodrum, 62, who had been missing for seven months when Fuentes Flores reportedly led investigators to her body in a remote spot off Highway 58 in December.

Daniel Raul Rodriguez Johnson, 31, of Heritage Ranch, is charged with murdering 27-year-old Carrington Jane Broussard of Paso Robles on March 3. Broussard, nine months pregnant, was found stabbed to death at her home. Her baby was also killed.

Johnson Arraignment023.jpg
Daniel Raul Rodriguez Johnson, 31, of Heritage Ranch listens during his first court appearance Thursday, March 7, 2019, in the killing of his pregnant girlfriend, 27-year-old Carrington Broussard. Joe Johnston

Both men have pleaded not guilty.

On Wednesday, Dow said the governor’s moratorium will not affect how his prosecutors proceed in both cases, because though the Newsom has said he won’t enforce executions, they are still law.

Dow noted that Newsom’s action could be completely undone by the next governor.

“Quite frankly, until it’s no longer a lawful option for us, I think it’s important to continue to think about every case individually, gather all the facts, and make a very sobering decision over whether or not it’s the type of case where the death penalty is appropriate.”

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