The long road

Possible retrial shines light on death penalty

The act of sentencing someone to die for his, or less commonly her, crimes goes back thousands of years, to the times of ritualized beheadings, crucifixions, burnings at the stake and other forms of torture. These days in America, we most typically use lethal injection. But the issue is fraught with controversy. Is it humane? Is it cost-effective? Is it fair? Does it even work as a deterrent?

As of April 1, California had 746 inmates on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Three of them are from Butte County, and one of them is Steven Crittenden, convicted in 1989 for torturing and killing a prominent Chico couple.

Now, 26 years later, Crittenden faces the possibility of a new trial. Like so many death penalty cases, Crittenden’s has gone through appeal after appeal. Two years ago, a federal judge ruled that the decision by prosecutor Gerald Flanagan to dismiss the lone black juror—he said it was because she opposed capital punishment—was racially motivated. Crittenden is black. The victims were white. Late last month, two judges on a three-judge panel in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that judge’s decision.

“Mr. Flanagan was well-known and well-respected. He was not a racist; he did not excuse this person for any racist bias as the judges are speculating,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. He added that the recent decision is being vetted by the state Attorney General’s Office and could go before a larger review board—made up of 11 9th Circuit judges—or the U.S. Supreme Court before a retrial is officially ordered.

“If there’s going to be a retrial, we’d like it back in Butte County,” Ramsey said, explaining that the original trial had been moved to Placer County—where Crittenden was ultimately convicted and sentenced—because of substantial media attention and the prominence of the victims.

The victims were William and Catherine Chiapella, ages 69 and 67, respectively. They were wealthy and well-known in the community. In January 1987, their son, Joseph, found them dead in their Downing Avenue home. They’d been bound, gagged, stabbed and bludgeoned. Evidence showed they’d been tortured. A message had been scrawled in lipstick on a bathroom mirror: “Just the beginning.”

Crittenden, a 19-year-old Chico State football player at the time, was linked to the Chiapellas because the university had helped him get hired to do yard work at the couple’s home. He never showed up for work, but witnesses said they’d seen him in the neighborhood around the time of the murder. Police found his footprint at the scene and blood on a pair of his shoes. Then Crittenden mysteriously cashed a $3,000 check from Catherine that he explained was for a sexual encounter between the two that could not be verified.

Crittenden’s possible retrial brings attention to the controversial nature of death penalty cases in the United States. As mentioned above, there are 746 inmates on death row in California, but there have been only 13 executions since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There have been none in the past two years. What’s more, though, is the evidence pointing to racial inequality when it comes to death penalty cases.

“In 96 percent of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both,” reads the center’s website (

Then there’s the cost. California alone has spent over $4 billion in the past 37 years on death penalty cases, which are very often appealed several times over. While 150 people have been exonerated from the death penalty in the United States since the 1970s, only three of them were in California.

Crittenden remains in San Quentin State Prison pending possible retrial.