Frank Sexton
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When Judge William Mudd sentenced David Westerfield to death on January 3 of this year, Westerfield joined a special subset of San Diegans. Of the 616 inmates on California’s death row, 31, including Westerfield, were convicted and sentenced in America’s Finest City. A Linda Vista man murdered the pretty young mother of two tiny boys, cut off her head and hands, and dumped her body near Pine Valley in 1979. A Chula Vista couple, the only husband and wife currently on death row, tortured their four-year-old niece in 1995, then burned her to death in a bathtub full of scalding water. A North County woman, angry about the men in her life, shot her four sons point-blank in the head in 1997, stopping once to reload. Who are these people in Mr. Westerfield’s new neighborhood?

The Law

It’s not easy to get to death row. According to California law, you have to commit first-degree murder to even be eligible for the death penalty. California Penal Code Section 190 defines first-degree murder as:

All murder which is perpetrated by means of a destructive device or explosive, knowing use of ammunition designed primarily to penetrate metal or armor, poison, lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or which is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking…or any murder which is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person, outside of the vehicle with the intent to inflict death.

California law also holds that to receive the death penalty, the defendant must be found guilty of at least one special circumstance. Penal Code Section 190.2 enumerates these circumstances. They include murder for financial gain, murder of a peace officer, murder by torture, murder during a kidnapping, and murder during a drive-by shooting.

Once a jury finds a defendant guilty of first-degree murder and finds the special circumstance allegation to be true, it has to decide which penalty to recommend to the judge: death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. During a separate penalty phase of the trial, the prosecution and defense present mitigating and aggravating circumstances with regard to the sentence. These circumstances include the nature of the present offense, the presence or absence of any prior felony conviction, whether the offense was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance, and the age of the defendant at the time of the crime. The judge considers the jury’s recommendation, then pronounces the formal sentence.

After a defendant has been convicted and sentenced to death, a raft of appeals processes kicks in. First, every death-penalty sentence is automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. This appeal, known as the direct appeal, can take five or more years to reach the court. After the California Supreme Court hears and decides the direct appeal, the defendant can make a direct appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, defendants can file habeas appeals in both the state and federal courts. Habeas appeals challenge the constitutionality of the defendant’s conviction. Before an execution occurs, defendants have last-chance pleas to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. If all these appeals fail, the defendant is executed by lethal injection at San Quentin.

BERNARD LEE HAMILTON

A lot of people think Bernard Lee Hamilton should die. Two San Diego juries, one in 1981 and another in 1996, sentenced Hamilton to death. Frank Sexton, the now-retired deputy district attorney who prosecuted Hamilton in 1979, thinks Hamilton should be dead. Pat Zahrapoulos, the assistant attorney general who opposed some of Hamilton’s many appeals, would like to see the case end before she retires. Only 20 of the over 600 inmates currently on death row have been there longer than Bernard Lee Hamilton. For death-penalty proponents, Hamilton represents a worst-case scenario: a cold-blooded murderer who has played the labyrinthine appeals process for almost 22 years.

The Facts

Eleanore Buchanan

Eleanore Buchanan

On May 30, 1979, Eleanore Frances Buchanan left her Spring Valley apartment at around 6:30 to go to a math class at Mesa College. Mrs. Buchanan was 24 on that spring evening. Three weeks before, she had given birth to her second son. She and her 27-year-old husband Terry, a dental-supply salesman, had another son who was 14 months old at the time. Mrs. Buchanan took the family’s only car, a new light blue Dodge van that Terry Buchanan used for his work. The gas tank was almost empty. Terry Buchanan had discovered a leak in it and planned to take the van in for repairs the next day.

A little before 7:00, Mrs. Buchanan parked the van in a Mesa College lot. Her class ran from 7:00 to 10:00. During class, she collected class notes from some of her classmates who had taken them while she was absent for the birth of her son. At 9:30, the math instructor gave an optional quiz. Mrs. Buchanan left class early so she could get home to nurse her baby.

Later that evening, Terry Buchanan reported his wife missing. The next afternoon at around 1:00, a hunter who had been target shooting found a young woman’s decapitated and handless body beside Interstate 8 near the Pine Valley off-ramp. The body had stab wounds and blue fibers on the abdomen and was clad only in a bra, panties, and socks. The wrists had tie marks, and white cords tied the ankles. On June 2, the San Diego Union included a small mention of sheriff’s homicide detectives’ continuing efforts to identify the body.

The next day, June 3, the Union reported that the headless body was Eleanore Buchanan. Subsequent published sources revealed the body had been identified by “a number of distinctive features which included moles, toenail polish, scars, recent episiotomy, and the nursing bra.” In a picture accompanying the Union article, Eleanore smiled out at the camera. She had a round, pretty face, a squarish jaw. Her dark hair was parted in the middle, and her bangs curled out to the sides à la Farrah Fawcett. She wore a square-necked peasant blouse or dress with heavy embroidery around the neckline. The article said investigators had no leads on who might have killed Mrs. Buchanan but asked the public’s assistance in finding the missing vehicle.

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