Guest Commentary: Reisig’s Death Penalty Piece Misses the Mark

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reisigby Richard Van Zandt

When Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig’s hand-picked judicial candidate, Clinton aka ‘Clint’ Parish, sent out a toxic mailer to Yolo County residents a few weeks before the June primary, it took less than a day for Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto to withdraw his endorsement of Parish.  The mailer was a blatantly dishonest series of charges against Judge Dan Maguire, whom Parish was challenging.

In contrast to Sheriff Prieto, Mr. Reisig waited until the Bee issued an “anti-endorsement” before withdrawing his own.  Reisig was at the top of Parish’s endorsement list, and was one of Parish’s first and biggest financial supporters.

 

In the end, Mr. Parish’s dishonest campaign brought embarrassment to the Yolo County legal community.  He still works for Mr. Reisig’s office.

Until recently, I was willing to consider the Parish campaign an aberration, not representative of Mr. Reisig’s leadership.  But with Reisig’s recent opinion against Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty in California, I’ve had a change of heart.

Mr. Reisig’s opinion piece shows that like the Parish campaign, he is willing to use dishonesty to demonize his opponents.  But Reisig goes one step further by extensively plagiarizing Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully.  These acts are unfortunate, because as the County’s top law enforcement officer, he is supposed to set an example of integrity.

Mr. Reisig plagiarized an entire Sacramento Bee opinion by Ms. Scully, published April 26, 2012.  He lifted her words, sentences and paragraphs.  He even stole the title of her piece, “Justice For Crime Victims Demands the Death Penalty.”  In just one example, Scully writes, “They (the ACLU) are responsible for endless delays, frivolous appeals and a mountain of misinformation.   Now, they claim capital punishment is broken and should be repealed.”

In comparison, Reisig writes, “The ACLU and its agents are responsible for endless delays in the criminal justice system, frivolous appeals and a mountain of misinformation.  And now, they claim the death penalty is irrevocably broken and costly and should be repealed.”

Setting aside the plagiarism, Mr. Reisig’s demonization of death penalty opponents is  offensive and dishonest, and where not dishonest, misleading.  Reisig writes opponents’ efforts have been “shameful and costly.”

Why, Mr. Reisig, is opposing the death penalty shameful and costly?  Could it be because opponents have secured exonerations, during and after the appellate process?  That’s right, some exonerations occur after the appeal, through writs of habeas corpus.  The writs may allege key evidence was not introduced at trial by either police not turning it over to the prosecutor, or the prosecutor not turning it over to the defense, or the defense not doing an adequate investigation, or key witnesses changing their story, or the police securing false confessions.  Yes, this process may be costly upon the taxpayer.  I would say it’s money well spent.  But the only shame resulting from these reversals is incurred upon the government, not the defense bar or ACLU.

Mr. Reisig also writes that Governor Jerry Brown stated he “has not seen any evidence” of any innocent inmate on Death Row, implying we don’t have to worry about innocent persons being executed.  But is Governor Brown aware of any inmate in the Department of Corrections?  Apparently, Governor Brown was not aware of Obie Anthony, Maurice Caldwell, and Frankie Carrillo, all of whom were wrongfully convicted, and were released within the past year after serving 17, 20, and 19 years, respectively, for murders they did not commit.  It was not the “due process” of the appeals process that freed these innocent men; it was a group of dedicated individuals led by the Northern California Innocence Project.

When Mr. Reisig bemoans the delays and costs of the death penalty, what exactly does he propose getting rid of?  Qualified appellate attorneys?  What appeals does he favor removing?  The writ process?   When he complains about “misinformation,” should he not look inward and try to correct the misinformation prosecutors and police put forth in many of these exonerees’s trials because the prosecutor and/or police failed to turn over key information to the defense or used knowingly corrupt police informants?

As recently as 2007, one of Mr. Reisig’s own deputy attorneys was found to have not turned over taped interviews with his star witness in a murder trial.  This information was found by the defense attorney in a storage locker, near the end of the second trial.  (The first trial was overturned due to the misconduct of the same prosecutor.)  What was the prosecutor’s excuse offered to the judge?  He was getting “divorced” during the first trial and “stress” caused him to lose track of the evidence for the second trial.  Huh?  The judge bought the excuse and found the misconduct was “not intentional.”  And Mr. Reisig himself had a case reversed when he failed to turn over material evidence, resulting in an Appellate Court reversal.  When courts rarely sanction prosecutors, it’s no surprise that prosecutorial misconduct is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.  What happened to the divorced prosecutor?  Mr. Reisig promoted him to supervisor.

Reisig is also dishonest about the likelihood that death row inmates would be released after their sentence is modified to life without the possibility of parole.  He recounts the cases of Norman Whitehorn and Eddie Wein, “convicted killers” who had their sentence commuted by Governor Pat Brown, were released, and “killed again.”  Such comparison is at least misleading, since Whitehorn and Wein were sentenced under the old, unconstitutional death penalty scheme, which was nullified by the California Supreme Court in 1972 and the United States Supreme Court in 1973.  The old system was completely different from today’s law and special circumstances were not required.  That’s why Reisig had to reach back 50 years to come up with any such case.  In Wein’s case, nobody died, so he could not have received the death penalty in the first place under the current law.  As for Whitehorn, Governor Brown perhaps commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole because he did not do the actual killing in the case.  Regardless, Whitehorn and Weir were not released by Brown.  Their sentences were automatically commuted to life with the possibility of parole when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty 40 years ago.  There is no such parole provision in Proposition 34.

If there’s one constant in Reisig’s opinion piece, besides dishonesty, it’s that the ACLU is bad.  I don’t share that belief.  The ACLU has mostly been on the right side of history, challenging government power in issues such as free speech, the right to assemble, freedom of the press, police misconduct, racial discrimination, religious freedom, voting rights, gay rights, gun rights, opposing the PATRIOT Act, and yes, the death penalty.  If there is one thing the ACLU is known for, it is that it supports unpopular causes to advance rights for the common good.  The ACLU is good thing.

It’s not difficult to write an opinion piece on the death penalty whether your position is pro or con.  If you’re pro, I understand you may believe there are some acts of murder that represent the worst of the worst.  The defense bar, the Innocence Project, and the ACLU, strive to make sure that even in those cases, the government’s case is perfect and righteous.  Because one killing of an innocent person, or one killing of somebody who doesn’t deserve the death penalty is an injustice that taints the entire system.

Richard Van Zandt is a Deputy Public Defender in Yolo County.  He writes this piece as a private citizen.

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25 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Reisig’s Death Penalty Piece Misses the Mark”

  1. Fight Against Injustice

    In the interest of transparency, who was the divorced prosecutor that didn’t turn over the interview tapes and then was promoted to supervisor?

  2. Superfluous Man

    [i]Mr. Reisig plagiarized an entire Sacramento Bee opinion by Ms. Scully, published April 26, 2012. He lifted her words, sentences and paragraphs. He even stole the title of her piece, “Justice For Crime Victims Demands the Death Penalty.” [/i]

    Was someone able to confirm that DA Scully was the original author of those words?

  3. hpierce

    [quote]He even stole the title of her piece, “Justice For Crime Victims Demands the Death Penalty.”[/quote]Forgetting , for the moment, the issue of “content”, doesn’t the newspaper decide on the captions/title?

  4. CBernstien

    The arguments in support of the ballot measure to abolish the death penalty are exaggerated at best and, in most cases, misleading and erroneous. Proposition 34 is being funded primarily by a wealthy, left-wing company out of Chicago, the ACLU, and similarly-oriented trust funds. It includes provisions that would only make our prisons less safe for both other prisoners and prison officials and significantly increase the costs to taxpayers due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time. Bottom line, the “SAFE” Act is an attempt by those who are responsible for the high costs and lack of executions to now persuade voters to abandon it on those grounds. Obviously, these arguments would disappear if the death penalty was carried forth in accordance with the law. Get the facts at and supporting evidence at http://cadeathpenalty.webs.com and http://waiting4justice.org/.

  5. hpierce

    CBernstein: thank you for your contribution of the links… not sure I’ll be convinced one way or the other, but scanning the first link, it seems to stick to proper arguments, rather than unbridled rhetoric.

  6. davislaw

    [quote][i]Forgetting , for the moment, the issue of “content”, doesn’t the newspaper decide on the captions/title?[/i] [/quote]

    I suppose the Daily Democrat could have stolen the title from a Bee opinion 3 months earlier, but that would be an amazing coincidence.

    [quote[i]]It includes provisions that would only make our prisons less safe for both other prisoners and prison officials and significantly increase the costs to taxpayers due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time[/i][/quote]

    The cost of maintaining Death Row is more expensive than general housing, maximum security costs. Lest we forget, many death row inmates are 50+.
    Re medical costs, whether they are on Death Row or not, medical costs are required. There is no savings by maintaining the death penalty, at least none beyond negligible, because executions are so rare.

    The costs eliminated by the Propostion are real and long lasting: no high cost death penalty trials that drag out months, no extra attorney costs, no Death Row housing costs, no Death Row high cost appeals, to name a few. Two well documented studies have put the savings at about 130 million per year–thats forever, not just in the first few years.

    The argument that the Death Penalty is cheaper is laughable. Hiring more people and cases that last longer result in higher costs, generally. Is that surprising?

  7. medwoman

    hpierce

    [quote]The very acronym “SAFE” bemoans the double-speak introduced in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”[/quote]

    I can’t help but wonder if we read the same link. The lead sentence above sets the tone for the entire piece.
    This link is nothing but a list of completely unsubstantiated assertions. Where were the facts or evidence to back of any of these purely politically motivated statements ? If you disagree, please point me to the specific assertions that were substantiated.

    Nevertheless, to CBernstien
    I appreciate your posting of a different point of view. I doubt rdcanning will have enough time to post this weekend due to work constraints, but I would be very interested in his opinion given his expertise in this area.

  8. Themis

    If Mr Reisig is so worried about costs to the taxpayer he should stop stacking charges on petty and first time criminals to make them look like they are major threats to the community. He should want the death penalty repealed; it obviously doesn’t deter crime and it costs much more to house people on death row. When someone in his capacity plagiarizes and is so determined in their position on something like the death penalty how can we expect this man to be honorable and do the right thing as Da of Yolo County. This community should be ashamed to have such a man representing them.

  9. davislaw

    [quote]This community should be ashamed to have such a man representing them. [/quote]
    [quote]Who are you to be telling the community how they should feel about Resieg? [/quote]

    Themis’s viewpoint is fairly objective, imo. Past history of hiding evidence in prior cases, the Parish campaign, his disasterous op-ed. Can you objectively trust him on a death penalty case?

  10. rusty49

    I trust him, as does most Yolo County because they voted him into office. Of course you have the fringe of the hardcore liberal left who are now attacking him ate very turn. Sorry, butthankfully most don’t agree with you.

  11. Superfluous Man

    [i]I trust him, as does most Yolo County because they voted him into office. Of course you have the fringe of the hardcore liberal left who are now attacking him ate very turn. [/i]

    To be fair, voters had no other option, other than a write-in, the last time. But, yeah, he was reelected.

  12. davislaw

    [quote]I trust him, as does most Yolo County because they voted him into office. Of course you have the fringe of the hardcore liberal left who are now attacking him ate very turn. Sorry, butthankfully most don’t agree with you. [/quote]

    Reisig had more credibility a few years ago, but he’s squandered it by being heavy handed. Even the Sheriff’s Association refused to back his candidate, Parish, in the recent election. He’s not had a good past several months.

  13. Sanity Defense

    I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time… first there’s the obsessive compulsive number of articles written on this topic – what’s it up to now, six?

    Then there’s the truly ridiculous idea that Reisig somehow “skated” because he wrote the piece before Topete’s wife was injured – that one seriously cracked me up.

    And plagiarism… really? I don’t suppose it ever occurred to any of the DA haters that Jan Scully and Jeff Reisig cooperated on their pieces about the death penalty…

  14. davislaw

    [quote]And plagiarism… really? I don’t suppose it ever occurred to any of the DA haters that Jan Scully and Jeff Reisig cooperated on their pieces about the death penalty…[/quote]

    So they should share equal blame on the content? I’m ok with that. A real, crack research team, that Reisig-Scully pair.

  15. eagle eye

    CB’s 2nd link brings up a blank page, unless org is replaced with net.
    There are no names or new info. The website is paid for by “Justice California”, ID # 1345752, 455 Capital Mall, Suite 600.

    I could find NOTHING in either link to support the claim that SAFE is “funded primarily” by a “left wing company in Chicago”.

    The first link is badly written but brings up some interesting claims of potential problems if SAFE passes.

  16. David M. Greenwald

    SD: “I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time… first there’s the obsessive compulsive number of articles written on this topic – what’s it up to now, six? “

    You do understand that multiple people have written on the topic, right? But just for that I think I’ll write a few more myself 😉

    R49: “Of course you have the fringe of the hardcore liberal left who are now attacking him ate very turn.”

    The irony is that about half the people attacking Reisig are actually right wing Republicans.

  17. medwoman

    hpierce

    [quote]medwoman… said I ‘scanned’… did not pick up on the line you quote.[/quote]

    And I cannot find what you are referencing. Can you clarify ?

  18. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]The irony is that about half the people attacking Reisig are actually right wing Republicans.[/quote]

    And you know this how? Who are “the people”? What do you mean by “attacking”? And what are “right wing Republicans”? Are you referring to registered Republicans? Did you check the voter registration of commenters?

  19. Thomas A. Anderson

    Mr. Van Zandt,

    This is an exceptionally well written article. I’m sure that Reisig and his cronies will not be at all happy with you Monday morning. As a Public Defender, aren’t you concerned that those people will take it out on you and/or your clients? There is a level of corruption within that office that is troubling……

    (I didn’t realize clinton parish is still an employee – I figured Reisig would have punted him farther than a pigskin on Sunday right after the election.)

  20. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: “And you know this how?” Because for the most part I know who posts the comments on here and I know who have led the efforts publicly against Reisig. I would say based on what I know, this is generally not ideologically based.

  21. Thomas A. Anderson

    David – what if the offers to Mr. Van Zandt’s clients to resolve teir cases at an early stage of the proceedings become unreasonable (or even more unreasonable than they already are) as a result of his opinion piece? The DA wields far too much power in this regard, and it would be easy to hide this type of abuse of power behind gamesmanship, something Reisig has been very good at in his career.

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