More than three 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’s office has continued to seek the death penalty in certain murder cases. In fact, during the last five years, LA County has been responsible for more death sentences per capita than any other large county in Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, or Washington.
Between 2014 and 2018, LA, neighboring Riverside, and Maricopa, Arizona were the only three counties in the nation that sentenced more than 10 people to death per year. And 31 percent of California’s more than 700 prisoners on death row were sentenced to die in Los Angeles. (The state has not executed anyone since 2006 due to lethal injection protocol problems.)
“Not only confusing, Lacey’s continued usage of the death penalty at new trials is downright wrong,” the ACLU of Southern California says in a new white paper.
“Lacey’s office continues to seek the death penalty in the face of unmistakable evidence that the practice disproportionately affects Black and brown people and people without access to quality counsel,” said Jessica Farris, director of criminal justice at the ACLU SoCal. “DA Lacey holds the power to immediately end death sentences in L.A. County. We hope she will.”
Since Lacey took office as Los Angeles County’s District Attorney in December 2012, 22 people have been sentenced to death in LA County, the ACLU says. None have been white. Thirteen of the people sentenced to death were Latinx, eight were black, and one person was Asian.
While just 12 percent of all homicide victims in LA County are white, 36 percent of the death penalty cases pursued under DA Lacey’s watch have had at least one white victim.
LA’s capital cases are also plagued by “inadequate defense counsel,” the report says.
Nine of the 22 people for whom LA prosecutors have secured death sentences were represented by lawyers who have alarming professional records. Either before or after representing their clients, five lawyers were disbarred or suspended for serious violations. Two other attorneys were put on probation, and another is reportedly currently facing “multiple bar charges.” The final attorney failed to give any defense during the guilt phase of the trial, and instead, frequently fell asleep in court, according to the white paper. In another case, a defendant chose to represent himself, and did not present any evidence.
Just three of the 22 defendants were represented by public defenders trained to provide counsel in capital cases. The rest (besides the man who represented himself) had private lawyers. “In Los Angeles, private appointed lawyers may have an incentive to work against their clients’ interests: they are guaranteed payment of their full fee only if they take the case to trial, which may discourage them from seeking life-saving plea bargains for their clients.”
When Governor Newsom announced the moratorium on capital punishment, he called the death penalty system a “failure” that has “wasted billions of taxpayer dollars,” and is “absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of a human error.”
And human errors do occur. Since 1981, five men–all people of color– have been exonerated after spending years on death row.
Moreover, the ACLU said, “Los Angelenos have repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected the death penalty” when it has landed on their ballots.
“LA County is an example of everything wrong with the death penalty,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the ACLU. “Abysmal defense lawyering, geographic disparities, and racial bias are the legacy of its unfair and discriminatory use of the death penalty.”
The DA, Stubbs says, “should take a step forward for racial justice and help end America’s failed experiment with the death penalty by announcing she will no longer tolerate death penalty cases under her watch.”