Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Great Court TV story looking at the difference between the life or death for convicted murderer, David Westerfield.


Even if sentenced to die, Westerfield, 50, will spend a dozen years if not decades in a maximum-security prison. With 614 condemned inmates, California's death row is the largest in the nation, but it is also one of the slowest. The federal court's Ninth Circuit, which hears California's death row appeals, is known for taking its time scrutinizing death cases and repeatedly sending them to lower courts for further review.

Since 1977, when the state reinstated capital punishment, only 10 men have been put to death, half the number of those who have died of natural causes during that period. Twelve committed suicide.

Those executed so far spent an average of 13.6 years on death row, but one of every six condemned prisoners has been on death row for more than 18 years, with the two longest-serving men confined since 1978. Every month, on average, death row gets a new inmate, but the Department of Corrections does not have a single execution scheduled.

So regardless of whether Westerfield departs the county jail for death row or a life behind bars, he will face years of monotonous cell life with only a few small differences in daily routine.

Life Without Parole

As a convicted child killer and — at least in the prosecutor's eyes — pedophile, Westerfield would be a likely candidate for a segregated prison unit.

"A lot of inmates have problems with (offenders who victimize children)," said Lt. Velma Swetich of Calipatria State Prison, a maximum-security facility two hours from San Diego. "They have a hard time making it in the general prison population."

It's not unusual for inmates to demand to see the sentencing papers of new arrivals to learn about their crimes and then attack or otherwise intimidate those who have brutalized children — or who will not disclose their offense. Moreover, in Westerfield's case many inmates certainly know from news coverage that he killed a child.

"He's received a lot of publicity, and inmates do watch a lot of TV," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state corrections department.

After the evaluation process, Westerfield would be transferred to a prison like Calipatria and housed in a Special Needs Yard with others who need protection, including pedophiles and gang "dropouts," as well as older prisoners who petition corrections officials to be moved away from younger, more aggressive inmates in the general population. In Calipatria, about 1,000 of the 4,200 inmates do their time in special yards.

The facilities and daily routine in the special yards are identical to those of the general population. Westerfield, who lived in a three-bedroom house worth $450,000, would share a 6-by-8-foot cell with one other person. Inmates with a history of violence against other prisoners get private cells.

Each day, corrections officers wake prisoners at 6 a.m. and march them to breakfast at 6:30 a.m. At 7:30, inmates either go to work, school or the prison yard. The work available to prisoners will be quite different than the complex design work Westerfield in his home- based engineering business. Prisoners manufacture eyeglasses, repair auto bodies and do prison laundry, and are paid minimum wage. A portion of the earnings goes to restitution and to reimburse taxpayers for the prison costs.

Vocational and academic classes are offered to maximum-security prisoners. Westerfield finished high school and earned an associates degree from a junior college in the early 1970s, but many of the prisoners lack basic skills and anyone with a less than a sixth grade education must attend school.

In Calipatria, about 200 inmates mill about the yard. There are chin-up bars and handball and basketball courts, but Californians voted to remove weights from prisons several years ago.

At midday, prisoners return to their cells for a headcount and then are marched to lunch. After several more hours at school, work or the yards, the prisoners eat dinner. They can make phone calls and take showers after dinner. At 9 p.m. everyone is locked in their cells. The inmates are allowed to read, listen to the radio or watch television in their cells.

During weekend visiting hours, prisoners can meet with their family and friends in large prison gathering rooms. They can have physical contact with their visitors, but not conjugal visits.

Death Row

If sentenced to death, David Westerfield would go straight to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, where all the state's condemned men reside.

Condemned prisoners spend most of their day in these two- person cells on San Quentin's death row.
He would skip the lengthy evaluation process, and instead undergo a brief classification in which corrections counselors would determine whether he needed to be segregated from others on death row.

He'd have the opportunity to be placed in a special yard with other "compatible" murderers, according to Vernell Crittendon, San Quentin's public information officer. Even among death row inmates, there is a hierarchy of heinousness. Child killers like Westerfield or serial killers, for example, might be targets in the general condemned population, so they are placed in special yards with 40 to 50 others like them.

Inmates on death row have individual cells that are 5.5 feet by 9 feet. Like maximum-security prisoners, they can have televisions, radios and books in their cells, but whenever they leave their cells, they are bound in full restraints and attended by several corrections officers. They eat all meals in their cells.

On death row, there are no work programs, no school classes. Some inmates take "cell" courses with state- certified teachers who visit the jail and meet individually with inmates.

Each day, prisoners eat breakfast at 6:20 a.m. and they enter the yard at 7:30 a.m. They can do sit-ups or chin-ups, walk or play basketball, card games or dominoes. At 1 p.m., they return to their cells where they remain for the rest of the day. Lights out is at 10 p.m. each night.

Death row inmates can receive visitors seven days a week although two days are solely for visits by lawyers. A maximum of four visitors are locked with inmates into small cubicles within a larger visiting room. Visits are a minimum of two hours and can be extended if the family lives more than 200 miles away.

About 90 of the 601 men on death row are considered "grade B," meaning they have been violent or threatening since their incarceration. These prisoners are not permitted in the yard with others. Instead, they exercise in a tiny private yard three days a week and are not eligible for contact visits.

Whether condemned or spared, Westerfield's life will be a mirror opposite of the existence he enjoyed before his arrest for the murder of his 7-year-old neighbor, Danielle van Dam. Then, as a single man and an entrepreneur, he set his own hours, had ample spending money and had to answer only to himself. One of his most prized possessions was his 35-foot recreational vehicle which allowed him to go where he wanted, when he wanted. Those days are over.