Killer hangs himself on California's death row

LOS ANGELES Tue May 29, 2012 10:18pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A convicted killer sentenced to die for the 1979 murder of a teenage boy has hanged himself on California's death row, months before voters in the state are due to decide whether to abolish the death penalty, prison officials said on Tuesday.

James Lee Crummel, 68, was found hanging in his cell at San Quentin State Prison, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Sam Robinson said in a written statement.

He was pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. (8.20 p.m. EDT) on Sunday, Robinson said.

Crummel had been housed on death row since he was sentenced to death in 2004 for the 1979 kidnapping, sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old James Wilfred Trotter.

Trotter was snatched as he walked to meet his school bus in Costa Mesa, California, in April of 1979. His charred remains were found more than a decade later, in 1990, but not confirmed as that of the boy until 1996.

The suicide comes ahead of a ballot measure in November which asks voters to repeal the death penalty in California, home to nearly a quarter of the nation's death row inmates.

The ballot initiative focuses on the high cost of the death penalty in a state that has executed 13 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the nation in 1976. More than 720 inmates sit on death row pending lengthy and expensive appeals.

Crummel joins another 20 inmates who have committed suicide while on California's death row. According to the corrections department, since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978, 57 condemned inmates in the state have died from natural causes and six died from other causes.

A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006 after ruling that the three-drug protocol that has been used for lethal injections carried the risk of causing the inmate too much pain and suffering before death.

California has since revised its protocol but an appeals court has blocked resumption of executions over the same objections.

Crummel, a native of Michigan who had convictions for child molestation dating to the 1960s, was found guilty in 1983 of killing a 9-year-old Arizona boy. That conviction was later overturned.

He was also considered a suspect in the disappearance of two other boys and became the target of protests in Newport Beach, California in the 1980s when neighbors learned that the high-risk offender was living in their midst.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)

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