A man convicted of an El Dorado County murder and rape, along with attempted murder, was pronounced dead in his death row cell in San Quentin State Prison on Jan. 31.
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James Leslie Karis Jr., 61, was pronounced dead at the prison at 6:40 a.m., a press release from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections stated. He had a single cell and the cause of death is unknown pending an autopsy.
On Sept. 17, 1982, Karis was sentenced to death by a jury in Sacramento County for July 8, 1981 the rape and murder of Peggy Pennington, 34, and attempted murder of Patty Vander Dussen, 27. Karis abducted the El Dorado County Welfare Department workers while they were on their daily walk around the block. Vander Dussen, who survived being shot in the neck, would later testify against Karis in his first trial.
During the phase to determine whether Karis was guilty, attorney and then-public defender Steve Tapson represented the accused.
“It’s a classic example of wasting money by not doing the death penalty,” he said.
After being found guilty and going through a trial to determine if capital punishment was appropriate, Karis would go through two more trials including being in the California Supreme Court, overturning the death sentence and being sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998. However, when new evidence of Karis’ childhood living conditions emerged, another trial took place in 2007, with Karis firing his defense team — Michael Bigelow and now-El Dorado County Judge Steven Bailey — just before the trial and acting as his own attorney.
“It was bizarre,” Tapson recalled. Bigelow and Bailey worked for a year on gathering evidence of childhood abuse on Karis, but in the end Karis told them, “Just send me back,” Tapson said. Karis told his attorneys that digging up his past was “not worth the hell” of reliving the memories in a trial. “It was a waste of money,” Tapson said. “He essentially sentenced himself to death.”
He was placed back on death row at the end of the trial, which Tapson believed in all likelihood cost more than keeping Karis on death row.
“It’s a shame that a monster like Karis was permitted to die of natural causes,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson. “Obstructionist tactics and weak representatives in Sacramento allowed this to happen. It’s time for the governor to enact real reforms to the death penalty system. For instance, adopting the single drug protocol, which has been approved by courts, and abandon the three-drug system that had led to years of pointless litigation.”
Last year, Proposition 34, which would have eliminated the death penalty and replaced it with a sentence of life in prison without parole, was defeated with a 52 percent vote against.
Since the reinstitution of the death penalty in California in 1978, 57 condemned inmates have died of natural causes, 21 have committed suicide, 13 have been executed in California, one was executed in Missouri and six have died from other causes. There are currently 729 offenders on California’s death row. The last time a prisoner was executed in California was 2006.
Contact Cole Mayer at 530-344-5068 or [email protected] Follow @CMayerMtDemo.