California inmate dies of natural causes after 26 years on death row

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A California prison inmate who spent 26 years on death row for murder has died of natural causes, the fourth so far this year in a state that hasn't carried out an execution since 2006.

Ronald Harold Seaton, 69, died last week at Marin General Hospital near San Francisco, state prison authorities said on Wednesday.

He had been on death row at San Quentin State Prison since 1989.

The death penalty is technically legal in California, but legal challenges to the state's lethal injection practices along with political reticence to push the issue in a liberal state have instead left condemned inmates in a limbo that in many cases has lasted for decades until their natural deaths.

Since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated in California, the state has executed only 13 people.

Sixty-nine, including Seaton, have died of natural causes while on death row, and 24 have committed suicide. Still awaiting execution are 747 others, who are housed on death row at San Quentin, in Marin County near San Francisco.

Last year, a federal judge said the lengthy wait for execution was unconstitutional, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to death in 1995 but has not been executed.

The judge overturned Jones' death sentence, but the case is under appeal, with arguments taking place this week.

Support for the death penalty has dropped in California and other states, amid concerns that the drugs used for lethal injections have led to botched and painful deaths.

The exoneration of some inmates by the Innocence Projects and other legal activists has also prompted skepticism.

Last year, a Field Poll showed support for capital punishment at a 50-year low in California, with 54 percent of voters supporting the death penalty, down from 68 percent in 2011.

Seaton was sentenced to death in 1986 for murder, robbery and burglary in connection with the death of Willis Paul Jones in Riverside County.

San Quentin has been experiencing an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease over the past week, with six confirmed cases and 95 inmates under observation for the severe form of pneumonia.

But the state said on Wednesday that there are no indications that the disease was a factor in Seaton's death.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)