Deep into retirement, he lost his faith in an eye for an eye and now speaks against it. What changed a mind so set on the ultimate punishment?
California's legendarily slow appeals system, which produces an average wait of nearly 20 years from conviction to fatal injection - the longest in the nation. Of the nine convicted killers McCartin sent to death row, only one has died. Not by execution, but from a heart attack in custody.
"Every one of my cases is bogged up in the appellate system," said McCartin, who retired in 1993 after 15 years on the bench.
"It's a waste of time and money," said the 82-year-old, self-described right-wing Republican whose sonorous voice still commands attention. "The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims' families."
In 2007, time and money were the reasons New Jersey became the first state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1972.
Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine commuted the executions of 10 men to life imprisonment without parole. Legal costs were too great and produced no result, lawmakers said. After spending an estimated $4.2 million for each death sentence, the state had executed no one since 1963. Also, eliminating capital punishment eliminated the risk of executing an innocent person.
Out of 36 remaining states with the death penalty, at least eight have considered legislation this year to end it - Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Washington and Kansas - an uncommon marriage between eastern liberals and western conservatives, built on economic hardship.
"This is the first time in which cost has been the prevalent issue in discussing the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a data clearinghouse that favors abolition of capital punishment.
The most recent arguments against it centered on the ever-increasing number of convicts cleared by DNA evidence.
Some of the worst cases occurred in Illinois. In 2000, then-Gov. George H. Ryan placed a moratorium on executions after 13 people had been exonerated from death row for reasons including genetic testing and recanted testimony. Ryan declared the system "so fraught with error that it has come close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life."
He commuted the sentences of all 167 death row convicts, most to life imprisonment without parole. His moratorium is still in effect.
Across the country, the number of prisoners exonerated and released from death row is more than 130, with thousands of appeals clogging the courts.
Death penalty trials are more expensive for several reasons: They often require extra lawyers; there are strict experience requirements for attorneys, leading to lengthy appellate waits while capable counsel is sought for the accused; security costs are higher, as well as costs for processing evidence - DNA testing, for example, is far more expensive than simple blood analyses.
After sentencing, prices continue to rise. It costs more to house death row inmates, who are held in segregated sections, in individual cells, with guards delivering everything from daily meals to toilet paper.
In California, home to the nation's biggest death row population at 667, it costs an extra $90,000 per inmate to imprison someone sentenced to death - an additional expense that totals more than $60 million annually, according to a 2008 study by the state's Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
The panel, which agreed with California Chief Justice Ronald M. George that the state's death penalty system was "dysfunctional," blamed exorbitant costs on delays in finding qualified public defenders, a severe backlog in appellate reviews, and a high rate of cases being overturned on constitutional grounds.
"Failures in the administration of California's death penalty law create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law," concluded the 117-page report.