Merced County DA is seeking the death penalty. And it could get costly, experts say

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office is pursuing the death penalty against a convicted killer who faces new charges of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy.

Santiago Martinez, an incarcerated 28-year-old man convicted in the 2010 Atwater slaying of Michael Ramirez, is considered the main suspect in the June 17, 2018, jailhouse death of Fabian Cardoza, a 20-year-old Modesto man who was awaiting a hearing on a robbery charge, according to Merced Superior Court documents.

Courtesy Merced County Sheriff's Office

If successful, it means Martinez would be placed on death row, waiting to be executed by the state. He would join Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera as the second Merced County native on death row.

Rivera has been incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison for more than a decade after being convicted of gunning down Merced police Officer Stephan Gray during a 2004 traffic stop.

The death penalty is an alternative to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And it’s often reserved for the most heinous criminals and crimes.

But prosecuting a case with the death penalty is often a lengthy and costly process, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a leading non-profit resource on the death penalty that also raises concerns about high rates of exoneration, racial disparities and evidence the death penalty doesn’t deter homicide rates.

Prosecutors first stated they would be seeking the death penalty during a March 15 hearing, according to court transcripts.

Martinez’s next hearing is on Sept. 10, according to court records.

Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent moratorium on executions had no bearing on her office’s decision to try the death penalty.

Newsom signed an executive order on March 13 and announced no Californians would be put to death under the death penalty while he was in office, granting a temporary reprieve to 737 inmates on death row.

However, the current moratorium would likely not have an effect on Martinez’s case because experts say the case and appeal likely wouldn’t conclude before Newsom is out of office.

Newsom’s moratorium comes three years after California voters rejected Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty. Lawmakers are currently introducing a constitutional amendment that would bypass voters.

Martinez’s attorney, Daniel Keith Martin of Ciummo and Associates, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Evidence and cost

Lewis declined to discuss the facts and circumstances of the case. But court documents lay out her office’s plans to use evidence and crimes Martinez has been convicted and accused of to support the death penalty case.

Along with Martinez’s “state of mind” during the alleged attack on Cardoza, Lewis’ office plans to bring up an alleged conspiracy to kill Alberto Santiago, Shawn Hunwardsen and Asuncion Rodriguez in May 2017.

The prosecution will also bring up Martinez’s attempted murder charge for a June 1, 2018, attack on Luis Prado, and Martinez’s conviction on an attempted murder charge during a prison assault on Jan. 13, 2014, in San Joaquin County, according to court documents.

The process of trying a case with the death penalty requires additional steps that result in additional legal costs for prosecutors, defense attorneys and the court, according to Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

The actual cost varies depending on the case and are hard to estimate, according to the DPIC. But a 2008 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice conservatively estimated at least an additional $500,000 cost to adding the death penalty.

Lewis didn’t say whether she considered the increased cost of the death penalty case, instead stating, “The decision in the Martinez case was made based upon the facts and circumstances of the case, and (my office’s) assessment of the current law within the State of California.”

Lewis said the costs of the case are anticipated to be covered within the proposed budget for her office.

Death penalty debate

About half of death penalty cases end up being reviewed, Semel said. Cases can be in review for years and pull families of victims into “decades of uncertainty” because of the lengthy review process, she said.

Also, while several Californians are placed on death row every year, executions are rare. The last execution in the state was 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen in 2006.

Many die awaiting execution such as Merced County native Albert Ruiz, who was convicted in the 2002 murder and robbery of liquor store owner Abdo Muhammed and Antonio Cruz. The 51-year-old man died of natural causes in 2013, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Death row inmates and those who have been executed also are racially disproportionate, according to the DPIC. A 2005 California study found those convicted of killing white people were more than three times as likely to face the death penalty as those convicted of killing black people, and four times as likely as those convicted of killing Latinos.

Newsom, in his decision to institute the moratorium, also claimed the death penalty system discriminated against the mentally ill, adding the death penalty hasn’t made the state safer but has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.

The moratorium was a moral decision, Newsom said. Lewis declined to state her personal opinion on the death penalty.

“My personal, moral beliefs are of no matter and have no influence upon the charging decisions made by the District Attorney’s Office,” Lewis said. Newsom’s office didn’t return requests for comment on the Martinez case.

Lewis acknowledged she understood the deeper social issues involved in the debates on the death penalty.

“However, my role as District Attorney does not permit that kind of wider analysis when reviewing an active case,” Lewis said. “Rather, I and the office as a whole must limit our analysis to the current law, understanding it as the active expression of the societal beliefs of our state.

“In addition, by limiting our analysis to a consideration of the strength of evidence available in the case and application of the law in effect, we reduce or eliminate both the influence of racial bias and the likelihood of later exoneration,” Lewis said.