In 1977, 19-year-old Larry Roggasch cracked open a six-pack of beer, pouring three on his little sister's freshly covered grave in their native San Jose, and made a promise: He would see that the man who raped, strangled and dumped her on a Marin County hillside be punished.

Thirty-six years later, judgment day looms for serial killer Joseph Naso, who at age 79 will become the oldest person ever sentenced to death in California when a judge next month pronounces his penalty for the murders of 18-year-old Roxene Roggasch and three other Northern California prostitutes.

But Larry Roggasch doesn't know whether he can bear to watch Naso receive what seems to him a hollow sentence. With an ongoing moratorium on executions in California and hundreds of convicted murderers awaiting capital punishment, there is virtually no chance the state will ever put Naso to death.

"It's a joke; he's never going to be executed," said Roggasch, a 56-year-old commercial fisherman. "He's going to live out the rest of his life safe and comfortable in his own cell on death row.

"That's why I want him to go to mainline prison," Roggasch continued. "He needs to suffer, like them -- not just my sister, all of them."


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In California, the death penalty appeals process takes so long that men half Naso's age on death row are more likely to die of natural causes or kill themselves than be executed by the state. And while they wait on San Quentin State Prison's death row, they lead a relatively comfortable existence, with single cells and access to the best attorneys fighting for prisoners' rights.

But on the heels of voters narrowly choosing to preserve the death penalty last year, California's district attorneys and peace officers are readying a proposition for the 2014 ballot that they say would expedite executions once the state lifts its moratorium on lethal injection drugs.

Among those spearheading the effort are District Attorneys Steve Wagstaffe of San Mateo County, Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County and Mark Peterson, whose Contra Costa County territory has been the scene of death penalty defendants mocking the threat of capital punishment in recent years.

"Some individuals facing murder charges would prefer the death penalty to life without parole because they believe the conditions on death row are better than among the general population," said Larry Barnes, a private defense attorney and death penalty expert. "They harbor the opinion that with some 720 men on death row, unless they are very young, they don't stand a chance of being executed."

Such was the case with Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza killer Nathan Burris, who practically begged Contra Costa County jurors to give him the death penalty at his trial last year for the jealousy-fueled ambush killing of his ex-girlfriend and her friend.

"If I was in Texas, I'd be terrified," Burris said from the witness stand in 2012. "California is not real. The death penalty means nothing to me but time to hang out and do what I'm going to do."

In the same courtroom three years earlier, Edward Wycoff received the death penalty for the ambush slayings of his sister and brother-in-law in El Cerrito. He told jurors that he deserved an award, not the death penalty, but still wanted the one-to-a-cell status that death row provides.

Between California resuming executions in 1992 and the beginning of the state's judicially imposed moratorium in 2006, just 13 men who exhausted their appeals have been executed. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation counts 722 men and 20 women currently on death row, nearly 300 of whom have had their sentences affirmed by the Supreme Court. Experts say it takes 12 years on average for condemned inmates in California to exhaust their appeals, more than twice the national average for death penalty states.

Meanwhile, the costs mount; by one estimate, the state has spent more than $4 billion on death penalty trials, appeals and incarceration since 1978.

"The death penalty process is broken, there is no dispute about that," said Peterson, who is part of Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings, a coalition of district attorneys, law enforcement professionals and victims' rights advocates in the process of raising $1.7 million to get on the November 2014 ballot an initiative they believe would cut the appeal process in half and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Among the initiative's proposals is a plan for appeals to be handled first by the state's appellate courts, alleviating the severe backlog in the state Supreme Court. It calls for a revamping of the defense attorney program to shrink the five-year delay for condemned inmates to get representation. It would give the state freedom to double up condemned inmates in cells, and house them in prisons other than San Quentin.

"This would be more fair to everyone involved, more fair to the victims, and more fair to the defendants because their legal issues would be expedited in a timely manner," Peterson said.

But Ana Zamora, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said Peterson and his coalition face "a serious uphill battle."

"The death penalty system is so broken beyond repair, there is no fixing the system that won't cost millions and millions and won't put at risk executing innocent people," she said.

In the meantime, San Quentin's death row more and more resembles a geriatric ward.

Killer and serial rapist Darryl Kemp currently holds the distinction as the oldest person to be sentenced to death in advance of Naso's Nov. 8 sentencing. Kemp was 73 when he slept through his 2009 trial and sentencing for the rape and murder of a Lafayette mother three decades earlier.

It was the second death sentence for Kemp, who killed just four months after he was released from San Quentin in 1978 after a California Supreme Court ruling that made capital punishment unconstitutional and commuted all death sentences to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Today, at age 77, Kemp is in the preliminary stage of his appeal that will stretch for years.

Naso, acting as his own attorney, fought for an acquittal and then life without parole at his trials for four murders in the 1970s and 1990s. He had escaped prosecution until 2010, when a search of his Reno home produced a diary documenting a half-century of rapes, a kill list and incriminating photographs of women. Prosecutors linked him to two other uncharged murders during the penalty phase of his trial.

Still, the notion of sentencing a 79-year-old to death provoked some controversy.

"Regardless of where one stands on the death penalty, with regard to Mr. Naso, it is clear before his appeals are exhausted, he will be long gone," said retired Santa Clara County judge and death penalty foe LaDoris Cordell. "People want to kill him before he dies. There are those of us who think this is ludicrous, that we are going to rush to kill people before they die."

Marin County District Attorney Edward Berberian does not back the proposed ballot initiative to revamp the death penalty because he doesn't believe the appeals process should be sped up. Nevertheless, he defends his prosecution of Naso, the first time his office had sought capital punishment in more than 20 years.

He said Naso's advanced age was considered in reaching his decision, but it was outweighed by the lives Naso had destroyed over his lifetime.

"This is a serial killer," Berberian said, "and with regard to use of the death penalty, if it's a law in this state, which it is, this is a case where a jury needed to make a decision."

Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.