By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – When Christopher Cheary was sentenced to death in January 2017 for raping, torturing and killing 3-year-old Sophia Acosta of Exeter, Ruth Williams said she felt she had found some justice for her great-granddaughter’s heinous death.
“I think of her every day,” she said. “That was taking a part of my life away when he took that baby away from me.”
Williams said she and Sophia were very close. The toddler often spent the night with Williams because she would refuse to go home where he mother lived with Cheary. She said she would take Sophia with her to appointments, the grocery store, and anywhere else she went.
“I am hoping I live long enough to see Chris Cheary fry,” Williams said. “If you know anything about this case, you know that he deserves to die.”
Williams shook with anger and choked back tears on March 13 when she heard that Governor Gavin Newsom had signed an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty in California. The executive order also called for withdrawing California’s lethal injection protocols and immediately closing the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. The order does not provide for the release of any individual from prison or alter any current conviction or sentence.
“Don’t put your faith in the Governor, it doesn’t work” she said. “If that was his kid or one of his grandkids, or someone he loved, he would be up there pulling the switch himself.”
Newsom said the death penalty is unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation. More than six in ten people on California’s death row are people of color. A 2005 study found that those convicted of killing whites were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than four times as likely as those convicted of killing Latinos. At least 18 of the 25 people executed in the U.S. in 2018 had one or more of the following impairments: significant evidence of mental illness; evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse.
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” said Governor Newsom. “Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
Newsom went on to state that innocent people have been sentenced to death in California. Since 1973, 164 condemned prisoners nationwide, including five in California, have been freed from death row after they were found to have been wrongfully convicted. No person has been executed since 2006 because California’s execution protocols have not been lawful. Yet today, 25 California death row inmates have exhausted all of their state and federal appeals and could be eligible for an execution date.
“He’s not a man,” Williams said of Cheary. “He’s not even good enough to be an animal. He can sit up there in his cell, by himself, with his white clothes on, watching his TV, playing his computer, have three meals a day and not worry about anything and my baby is in the ground. Do you think there is any fairness in that?”
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward fundamentally disagreed with the Governor’s order.
“As a Californian, the District Attorney of Tulare County, and a prosecutor who has spent countless hours with families torn apart by violent criminals, I find this order deeply offensive to the memories of murdered loved ones and the justice they rightfully deserve,” Ward said.
Voters agree. In 2012, 52% of Californians voted down Proposition 34 which would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and required those with life sentences to work and pay restitution to victims’ families. In 2016, voters were faced with dueling propositions. Prop. 62, which would have abolished the death penalty was rejected by 53% of voters while Prop. 66, which upheld the death penalty and streamlined the appeals process, was passed by 51% of voters.
“I wonder how he could overthrow a law that we voted in”,” Williams asked. “How is that fair?”
DA Ward said the death penalty is a sentence requested in only the most egregious murders. He said DA’s up and down the state were not notified of this decision prior to the announcement. He said if he had known, he would have reached out to every victims’ family member to tell them before they learned it from reading it in the news.
“It is abundantly clear that victims and the will of California voters are not a priority for Governor Newsom,” Ward said.
Since 1978, California has spent $5 billion on a death penalty system that has executed 13 people. Three states — Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — have Governor-imposed moratoria on the death penalty and in 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional and “racially biased.”
There are 737 people currently on death row in California. California has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere — one in four people on death row in the United States are in California.
The last person to be executed in California was Clarence Ray Allen in 2006. Allen was convicted of three murders and conspired to have eight witnesses killed following the 1974 robbery he orchestrated at Fran’s Market in Fresno. The last person to be sentenced to death was a Tulare County man. Eric Jiminez, a Strathmore gang member who went by the name “Psycho,” was sentenced to death on Nov. 15, 2018 for strangling a man in 2012 and then burning his body and car to cover up the crime.
The Cheary case was considered by experts who testified at the trial to be one of the worst cases of sexual abuse and assault of a child they had ever seen. It is widely considered to be the worst crime in the history of the city of Exeter.
“If they aren’t going to execute him, let him go and we’ll take care of it,” Williams said.