The Death Penalty is Discriminatory, Unfair, and Officially Suspended.
Why Does L.A. D.A. Jackie Lacey Still Use It?
Los Angelenos have repeatedly rejected the death penalty at the ballot box. The death penalty is racially biased, and all too often, it is handed down to those with the worst lawyers. We have seen innocent persons wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in California. Jackie Lacey has admitted the death penalty does not deter crime and does not provide closure to victims. A commission tasked with considering the death penalty in California concluded it is a dysfunctional disaster. This conclusion was echoed this spring by two justices of the CA Supreme Court, who described the death penalty as “an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all.”
In March, Gov. Newsom issued a statewide moratorium on the death penalty, dismantled the execution chamber, and withdrew the state’s lethal injection protocols.
Yet DA Jackie Lacey has continued to allow death penalty trials to go forward. Lacey’s continued use of the death penalty at new trials is downright wrong.
Lacey was sworn in as the 42nd DA in December 2012. To date, 22 people have received the death penalty locally while she has been in office. An examination of the 22 death penalty verdicts returned under Lacey’s tenure reveals evidence of the death penalty’s most serious albatrosses: racial bias and inadequate defense counsel.
Every Defendant Sentenced to Death Under Jackie Lacey’s Tenure Is a Person of Color
All of the 22 people who have received death sentences while Lacey has been in office are people of color; 13 Latinx defendants, eight Black defendants, and one Asian defendant have been sentenced to die under Lacey’s administration. Zero white defendants have been sentenced to die in this period.
The overwhelming majority of victims in homicide cases in Los Angeles are persons of color. Between 2000 and 2015, Latinx, Black, and Asian homicide victims collectively comprised 87% of the victims of homicide in Los Angeles County, while white homicide victims constituted only 12%.10 Nonetheless, more than a third (36%) of the 22 defendants sentenced to death during Lacey’s term involved at least one white victim.
The pernicious role of racial bias is not new to the operation of the death penalty. Study after study has found discrimination in police and prosecutor charging practices, and in the imposition of the death penalty.
The response of Deputy DA Hanisee to the problem of racial discrimination in the death penalty is a bizarre one. She suggested that California execute the white people. She said, “Of the 24 or so who are presently eligible for execution, half of them are white men. So let’s execute them.”
Executing someone on the basis of their race is, of course, unconstitutional.
Not a Fair Fight: Disbarred and Suspended Defense Counsel and Pro Se Defendants
Of the 22 death penalty sentences imposed under Lacey, over a third of the defendants (8 people) were represented by counsel who had prior or subsequent serious misconduct charges. Specifically, public bar records indicate that defense counsel in five cases were previously or subsequently suspended or disbarred, the most serious levels of discipline for ethical violations.
Defense counsel for two other defendants was put on probation on three occasions, and counsel for the eighth defendant currently faces multiple bar charges. In yet another case, defense counsel waived opening statements, a critical opportunity to frame the case for the jury, and put on no defense at all in the guilt phase. He then repeatedly fell asleep during the guilt and penalty phases of the capital trial. Furthermore, in an additional case, the defendant represented himself.
Institutional defenders (i.e., public defenders), with specialized death penalty training and adequate staffing on capital cases, often provide a markedly higher level of representation than private lawyers appointed in capital cases. Even though institutional defenders represent the majority of capital cases, of the 22 cases with death verdicts, the institutional defenders represented only three. The vast majority—19 of the 22 cases—were handled by private appointed or retained 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.
Abysmal lawyering has long been a predictor of who will actually receive the death penalty. Good lawyering is necessary to uncover witness bias, expose false testimony, and make the case for life by giving the jury important evidence about the person’s life and background that would support rejection of the death penalty. Failures of defense counsel, along with prosecutorial misconduct, are chief contributors to wrongful convictions.
Because of the serious and intractable problems with underfunding and delay in California’s appellate review system, it is likely to be decades before the full scope of the problems is clear and the issue of ineffective counsel is scrutinized by the courts.
The last two California death row exonerees won their freedom only approximately 25 years after their convictions—delays that are only likely to grow given California’s long and growing appellate backlog.
Lacey’s Actions Have Furthered LA’s Role as the Nation’s Largest Producer of Death Sentences
In absolute numbers, no county in the US has produced more death sentences than LA. Of the 723 people currently under a sentence of death in California, 222—31%—are from Los Angeles County. Even as death sentencing plummets nationwide, LA remains an outlier. LA, Riverside, and Maricopa (AZ) Counties were the only three counties nationwide to have more than 10 death sentences over the last five-year period, from 2014 through 2018.
Out of more than 3,100 counties nationwide, in 2018, LA was one of only four with more than one death sentence. Per capita, LA over the last five years has had more death sentences than 53 of the 58 counties in California. Over the past five years, LA has also produced more death sentences per capita than any large county in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, or Georgia.
Continuing to seek the death penalty in LA is not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but out of step with the desires of the voters in the county. It is morally wrong. The death penalty discriminates on the basis of race and against the poor, and is administered disproportionately and arbitrarily based on a defendant’s ZIP code and the quality of one’s attorney. The death penalty is out of step with the value of equal justice that residents demand. It is time for DA Jackie Lacey to step up and step away from the death penalty.