Monday Morning Thoughts: The Death Penalty Dies Hard in California

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Last week in Sacramento came a headline: “Judge gives Sacramento man death sentence after killing family at Land Park home.”  It got me thinking, why is Thien Ho spending resources to get a death penalty conviction?

The local news had the family of the victim up there with photos and reading statements, but the reality is that the man, convicted of killing four people in a 2017 slaying, will never be executed.

You can argue that California technically still has a death penalty on the books even though it has not executed anyone in over a decade and won’t any time soon with a moratorium in place.

Beyond that, however, the US is turning away from the death penalty.

As of last week, there were 23 people in the US who were executed this year.

All of them in deep red states in the south:

Texas – 8, Missouri – 4, Oklahoma – 3, Florida – 6, Alabama – 2

Five states.  That’s it.  Is California going to join those states any time soon?  Really?

At the Los Angeles DA debate last week, they asked the candidates a question: “Would you find it appropriate to seek the death penalty?”  Most of them seem to support it even though some acknowledge it won’t happen.

John McKinney responded that “the death penalty is the law. And if you are vying to be the district attorney of Los Angeles County, I would hope that you would have fidelity to the law and agree to uphold the law.”  He said he would seek the death penalty in first degree murder cases with special circumstances.  “That’s when we seek the death penalty.”

Jon Hatami said, “Capital punishment was passed by the people of the state of California in 2012. It was passed again by the people of the state of California in 2016. It is the law here in the state of California.”

Debra Archuleta said, “The death penalty reflects the will of the voters and as the district attorney of Los Angeles, you must carry out the law whether you ideologically agree with it or not.”

Of course the LA voters twice voted to end the death penalty.  So it’s not clear even under that rationale there is that obligation.

She added that “to automatically tie the hands of the district attorney by saying, I don’t believe in that, you have no business running for this office.

Eric Saddall was clearly in favor of the death penalty, but acknowledged the problem, noting that when he prosecuted the murder of an officer in 1983, both of the defendants were sentenced to death.

“The co-defendants who’ve been on death row since 1985, testified (at a retrial), what does that tell?”  he asked.  “It doesn’t work.  It is a fallacy.  There is no death penalty.  There’s literally no way to actually execute someone in California. It brings people, victims, false hope. And I’m not going to engage in that type of stuff.”

Maria Ramirez called it a “hot button issue.”  But, “as district attorney, we are bound to follow the law. And even if it is symbolic at this point, because death executions do not happen in California, it is still the law by the power of the people of the state of California, and we must follow that law.”

She added, “The important thing for the district attorney is to have a fair process of analysis for those cases that qualify for the death penalty so that we are not imposing it symbolically on every case that has a special circumstance allegation.”

Craig Mitchell argued that he lost no sleep over the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

At the same time, he acknowledged, “having said that, I also understand literally millions of dollars that we spend in the appellate process once a death sentence comes down and in an era of limited resources, we could take those billions of dollars and redirect them to services from victims of crime and to actually address the cause a crime. And so in terms of me adhering to the law, I’ll do that, but in the vast majority of cases, life without the possibility of parole, stop this nonsense appellate process that goes on forever. Spend the money where I can help people.”

What became clear is that, while there were a variety of viewpoints on the death penalty on the panel, only two were clearly against the death penalty.

Jeff Chemerinsky said, “Ultimately, I don’t believe in the death penalty for a number of reasons and let me go through a few of them. First, I don’t believe the death penalty is any deterrent whatsoever. There’s absolutely no evidence that the death penalty deters any type of crime. Second, the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to minorities and underserved communities. I think that’s deeply problematic.”

It was Gascón who forcefully brought the point home, however.

George Gascón spoke about the exoneration of Maurice Hastings who was recently exonerated.

“The death penalty doesn’t work,” Gascón explained.  He noted that in the Hastings case, a Black man spent 47 years in prison as a result of a prosecution in LA County.

“This office filed the death penalty twice and finally the death penalty was overturned and he was given life without the possibility of parole. For 20 years. He tried to have the DNA tested because he was found guilty of rape and murder. When I first came to office, I was told not to allow the DNA to be tested because we must protect the conviction. I refused to. We tested the DNA. Not only was Maurice Hastings factually innocent, but the person that murdered and raped the victim and raped another woman later was walking free around the streets because of the wrongful conviction.”

It is an interesting thing—several of the DA candidates in effect argued against prosecutorial discretion and noted that they were bound to follow the law of the land.  But they ignore the fact that the law of the land in fact gives them discretion as to when and whether to seek the death penalty.

There is nothing in the law that compels a DA to seek the death penalty… ever.

No one seemed to really acknowledge that the world has for the most part turned away from the death penalty and a growing number of states have banned the death penalty—and only five states in fact have executed anyone this year (all of them more than one).

The death penalty is dying out in the rest of the country and yet the majority of the candidates for DA in Los Angeles remain to some extent committed to it.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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