Death Penalty

75 Law Professors and Scholars Call on LA County DA to Stop Seeking the Death Penalty

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Wednesday, a group of more than 75 law professors and other legal experts issued an open letter urging Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey to put a stop to the death penalty system in LA.

Months after California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty and dismantled the state’s execution chamber, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has continued to seek the death penalty in certain murder cases.

DA Lacey “seeks the death penalty with an enthusiasm and consistency unmatched by many of her counterparts across the country,” the letter said. “The nexus of capital punishment in this country resides not in Texas, Georgia, or Oklahoma, but in Los Angeles County, California.”

LA County has, in fact, been responsible for more death sentences per capita than any other large county in Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, or Washington, over the last five years, according to an ACLU white paper released last month. Nearly one-third of California’s more than 700 prisoners on death row were sentenced to die in LA County. And between 2014 and 2018, Los Angeles, neighboring Riverside, and Maricopa, Arizona were the only three counties in the nation that sentenced more than 10 people to death per year.

While Lacey has championed mental health diversion since her 2012 election, lately she has faced a growing chorus of accusations that she has not held law enforcement officers accountable for alleged excessive–fatal– uses of force, and is not the criminal justice reformer that many hoped to elect. (Lacey may soon face a challenge for her position from San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is arguably one of the most reform-focused district attorneys of any large jurisdiction in California.)

Across the nation, Wednesday’s open letter stated, “we execute not the worst of the worst, as the Supreme Court has mandated, but society’s most vulnerable and least lucky”–people with severe intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, histories of “unspeakable sexual or physical abuse,” or a combination of these circumstances.

Moreover, legal defense is often “ineffective”–and even “deplorable”–in capital cases, according to the professors and scholars. “In trial after trial, lawyers fail to provide effective representation for their clients,” the letter said. “They conduct no investigation into the case, spend little time with the client or their family, and often present little to no testimony at trial or during the sentencing phase.” Thus, mental illnesses, low IQs, extreme trauma, and other impairments can go “unacknowledged by counsel and, as a result, unknown by jurors deciding” defendants’ fates.

Even more troubling, is the fact that more than 165 innocent people have been freed from death row since 1973 after being wrongfully convicted. Substandard legal defense is often, at least partially, to blame, along with prosecutorial misconduct, faulty eyewitness testimony, and bad police work.

Out of the 22 people for whom the DA’s Office has procured death sentences since Lacey’s inauguration, five were represented by lawyers who had been suspended or disbarred. “One lawyer is currently under investigation by the state licensing agency, and two of the accused represented themselves, a frequent sign of a person with a defense team ill-equipped to handle mental illness or the seriousness of the work,” according to the legal experts. “Only three men received representation from institutional public defense organizations–offices with specialized training and staff dedicated to capital cases. Luck of the draw should not determine whether a person lives or dies–but in Los Angeles, it does.”

In her July newsletter, Lacey defended her stance on the death penalty.

“Dear Friends,” Lacey wrote, “This month, I would like to talk about the death penalty.”

Capital punishment, Lacey said, “should be reserved for the worst of the worst offenders.”

Among the people whom Lacey’s prosecutors have secured death penalty convictions, is Isauro Aguirre who, along with his girlfriend, Pearl Fernandez, subjected her 8-year-old son, Gabriel Fernandez, to long-term torture, before killing him. Lacey’s letter highlighted seven other LA County-prosecuted death row cases most of which involved horrible, multiple murders.

“These families grieve for their loved ones and look to me for justice,” Lacey said. “They, like every resident of Los Angeles County, expect their prosecutors to follow the law.” And voters have failed to abolish the death penalty twice in recent years, leaving the death penalty an option for prosecutors who continue to seek it. (Despite this, the state has not executed anyone since 2006 because of problems with lethal injection protocols.)

None of the 22 people whom the LA County DA’s Office has sentenced to death since Lacey’s election have been white, critics have also pointed out. Lacey, in her letter, argued that her “prosecutors make decisions based on the facts of the crime – not the race of the defendant or the victim,” adding that both defendants and victims in LA County’s capital cases have been racially diverse.

“We will continue to carefully review these cases and I will follow the law as prescribed by the people of California – whether that is seeking the death penalty for the most heinous crimes or, if the death penalty is abolished, life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

The law professors and scholars say that DA Lacey should follow the lead of Gov. Newsom and several other jurisdictions that have issued moratoriums on capital punishment, which so often reaches a level that is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

“A prosecutor’s job, first and foremost, is to seek justice and uphold the constitution,” the letter concludes. “By leading the nation in its use of the death penalty, the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles violates its solemn oath. We call on the office to end the county’s experiment with the broken machinery of death.”

14 Comments

  • Okay. Let’s put a few more whites folks on the barbie if that will shut up these liberals with no sense of reality. By the way……the death penalty hasn’t been actually carried out in CA for years. DA Lacey speaks for the victims who always seem to be left out of the discussion.

  • WHAT BULL CRAP! That’s why I vote for her every time! Good for her. Too bad we live in Kalifornia where the criminals who prey on the people of color will never get what they deserve. Just more neo-prog hate of America BS. Don’t worry Don’t worry Nacy Pelosi or Newsom (Nancy’s nephew) with armed guards around you these predators won’t be bothering you!

  • C: I want to take a moment and thank you for not reporting a stupid bigoted issue. Although we don’t agree on anything we have always been respectful of each other’s views. Yesterday, LAT online edition, reported on the hiring of the son of Sheriff AV. Pitchess, Block, Baca and McDonnell all hired friends, politicos and relatives. Many of these hires were questionable to the point that Baca had a Friends Of The Sheriff hiring program (FOS) that Waldie lied about and said there was no such program. No one misses Waldie, BTW.
    The point was that neither you and other media were at least understanding enough NOT TO TAKE A WHACK AT THE CHILDREN OF POLITICIANS. I never have commented on Former President Obama’s kids nor that of President Trump. Nor should we.
    This is just one more low for the LAT and their obsession with Sheriff AV.

    • Um:

      “NOT TO TAKE A WHACK AT THE CHILDREN OF POLITICIANS.”

      AV’s son

      1. Is 33 years old, no longer a child.
      2. He was in the Army.

      The issue at hand is AV’s hiring decisions, and this particular hiring decision can be categorized as

      Nepotism

      and is thus worthy of public scrutiny, particularly since he was under probation for a DUI conviction.

      AV campaigned on a promise that new hires would have at least an Associate’s degree; does AV’s son meet that campaign promise?

      • Cognistator,

        I don’t follow this forum closely enough to know if you’re a department member or not. As far back as the Pitchess and Block administrations, a single DUI was not disqualifying. Two or more was an automatic no-go.

        What came into play with one DUI, or other background issues, was the “whole person” approach. An applicant who had since gained valuable life experience – maturity, marriage, children, military service, stable employment, good credit history, additional education, etc. – would often be considered for hire. Yes, FOS or even being related to an executive was frequently a deciding factor.

        Since you post quite a bit here, it looks like you have spare time on your hands. Go look up section 1031 of the Government Code. See that part about misdemeanor convictions being disqualifying per the state? No? That’s because it doesn’t exist. Anything below the statutory threshold is discretionary.

        Most criminal convictions come with either informal or formal probation, so your assertion that AV’s son’s hiring is worthy of public scrutiny because he was “under probation” makes no sense. His three-year probation would have run out around 2008, BTW.

        As to the education requirement to be hired, again, the statutory requirement is a high school diploma or equivalent. Because AV was “only” a LT before running for office, maybe he wasn’t aware that changing class specifications wasn’t quite as easy as he thought. And in an era in which everybody with a cell phone wants to destroy cops lives, it’s going to continue to get harder to find people willing to become one; limiting the applicant pool unnecessarily just doesn’t make sense.

        My apologies for replying to a post that has nothing to do with the article about the death penalty.

  • Dose of Reality

    Apologies accepted.

    I said that this case warrants public scrutiny because it is nepotism, and nepotism is an indicator of deeper corruption–like an iceberg tip, there’s more iceberg beneath the surface.

    The educational high school requirement you allude to is a MINIMUM requirement; there is no statute that prevents a law enforcement agency from establishing a higher standard, and the Associate’s degree seems to be that coming standard.

    The cell phone: that comes from public distrust of the police.

    No body trusts a police report anymore; hence, the proliferation of cell phone cameras.

  • My apology was not intended for you.

    You are definitely not a department member. You’d know there are tons of legacy members, and it is not an indicator of nepotism. Nor is the hiring of AV’s son necessarily an indicator of nepotism or “deeper corruption.” I tried to explain to you that his particular situation (that we are all pretending to know due to leaks) falls within the discretionary hiring guidelines not only of the state but within the historic guidelines of the agency.

    Yes, the minimum education standard is HS diploma and more is icing on the cake. If by “coming standard” you mean more and more individual agencies set a higher educational bar, I don’t believe that’s a trend. However, paying bonuses for higher education as a hiring/retention incentive has been out there for a long time. Very few higher-paying local agencies require a degree.

    As to the trust issue, I see it as the evolution of the “CSI effect.” Juries wanted scientific evidence in trials after the show debuted. They didn’t want to settle for the same old evidence any more. This is the same thing, with an added dose of disrespect for authority figures and the “I didn’t to do nothing” attitude.

    Your assertion that nobody trusts police anymore is a sad commentary on your belief system. My 30+ years of dealing with the public who would go out of their way to thank us tells me you are dead wrong.

    • Dose of Reality:

      Dictionary definition of “Nepotism”, as taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary (that’s the dictionary in your Apple computer, if you have one):

      The practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.

      With THAT definition the C.M. matter would also be a case of Nepotism.

      • I understand the word, but I take issue with the assumption that nepotism necessarily took place with AV’s son. Of the many legacy hires I’ve known, most of them lived a breathed LASD from the time they were little kids. Most of them became explorers until they were old enough to apply for a dept job, with some moving up from Custody Assistant until they were old enough to apply for deputy positions.

        As far as CM’s situation, I won’t argue that one.

          • Yes, which makes him (at least to somebody like me who has worked backgrounds) seem like a good hire based on the whole person approach to candidate selection.

            Just doing some quick math, AV’s son would have been 19 when he got his DUI and subsequently blew off the terms of his probation, at least for a while. Again, with us pretending to know his specific background details, he likely has done quite a bit of maturing that included serving in the Army. This is exactly what we used to recommend to candidates who didn’t have the requisite stability in their lives to obtain before they considered re-applying – military service, stable employment, stable credit, time since a background setback (arrest, bankruptcy, job termination), etc.

            Anyway, I hope AV’s son gets a fair shake by everybody, with an opportunity to sink or swim on his own.

  • This is actually logical and I like that shit…

    keep lt. thong and his clown suit off and things stay in line. by the way Im the one that he never came to see but lied that he was there. (hope he reads this)

    DA Lacy round of applause…there are actually some good police officers out there

  • Cognistator and Dose of Reality, thanks for a mature discussion. It gets tiresome with some of the attack dogs who post here.

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