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Yuba City woman backs death penalty in Sacramento protest
She never intended to become an activist.
But ever since the day her 8-year-old son, Michael Lyons, was found mutilated and lifeless in a Yuba City river bottom 16 years ago, Sandy Friend, 39, has been speaking out on his behalf.
In the wake of news about a ballot measure that seeks to abolish the death penalty in California — a move that could take her son's killer off death row — she climbed the Capitol steps in Sacramento on Tuesday to tell her story again.
Robert Boyd Rhoades, a Yuba City barber and twice-convicted sex offender, took the boy as he walked home from Bridge Street Elementary School on May 16, 1996, she said. After torturing her son with 80 shallow stab wounds, Friend said, "he continuously raped Michael, and when he was done ... he discarded him like a piece of trash in the river bottom in our community where my son grew up."
More than a thousand people attended what was meant to be a rally in honor of National Victim Rights week.
The event, however, coincided with the announcement a day earlier that the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act — otherwise known as the SAFE California Act — had garnered enough support to qualify for the November ballot.
The measure seeks to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.
Legislators, law enforcement officials and victims' rights group lobbyists spoke out, along with Friend, against both the ballot measure and Assembly Bill 109, which restructures the prison system and diminishes criminal sentences.
"Life imprisonment is not life imprisonment," said Friend. "It's no guarantee."
"The system returned Rhoades to our streets," she said. "He had already raped and killed."
Prior to taking her son's life, she said, "Rhoades fooled our system once again."
Earlier on Tuesday, amid hundreds of poster-sized photos of children and adults killed by violent crime in California, friendly debates erupted about the death penalty.
Bernard Ruiz, 52, of Merced, the father of a 2008 shooting victim, argued politely with representatives of Californians for Public Safety and Justice, the group for which Friend advocates.
The death penalty, Ruiz said, "is not gonna bring my son back."
"We believe the death penalty doesn't bring a solution," said Rev. Michael Kiernan, director of social services and charities for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which sponsored a booth next to Friend's group.
Life in prison, he said, is a better alternative.
For violent crimes, "in you go, and in you stay," he said.
A cacophony of opinions rang across the Capitol lawn from a wide expanse of lobbying and advocacy booths.
"We're glad to have the dialogue," Kiernan said. "It's America, and everybody has their opinion. I respect that."
If approved by voters in November, 725 death row inmates could have their sentences converted to life in prison, the harshest penalty prosecutors could seek.
Supporters collected more than the 504,760 valid signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot.
If passed, $100 million in savings from abolishing the death penalty would be used to investigate unsolved murders and rapes, according to advocates.
CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.