ACLU Calls LA County DA Out Over Pursuit of Death Penalty

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A report released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union blasted Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, finding she has only secured death penalty convictions against people of color since taking office in 2012.

The ACLU says LA’s top prosecutor continues to pursue these convictions despite a moratorium issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom this year.

Lacey’s office has secured 22 death penalty convictions since she took office six years ago. All involved people of color, including 13 Latino defendants, 8 black defendants and one Asian defendant, according to the ACLU report.

“LA County is an example of everything wrong with the death penalty,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the ACLU, said in a statement.

The report also says unfit attorneys who were either previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended, or charged with misconduct represented nine of the 22 defendants.

LA County produced the highest number of death sentences than any other county in the nation, the ACLU said. The group noted of the 723 people on death row, 31% were convicted in Los Angeles.

White victims represented 36% of cases that led to a death sentence, but made up only 12% of homicides each year in Los Angeles.

In a statement, Lacey said the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for serial killers, a person who kills an on-duty police officer and for other more serious crimes.

“California voters have twice failed to abolish the death penalty,” Lacey said. “I will follow the law as prescribed by the citizens of California – whether that is seeking the death penalty for the most heinous crimes or, with the abolition of the death penalty, life without parole.”

She said her office only pursued the death penalty in 3% of cases and did so based on facts, without consideration of race of the defendant or victim.

Lisa Holder, criminal defense attorney and professor at UCLA School of Law, said the political tide in California is changing and moving away from the death penalty. Nearly all Democratic presidential candidates oppose the death penalty, including Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco DA and state attorney general.

“Given the changing mores, the dramatic shift away from the death penalty, it is very clear that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment at the state level and at the community level,” Holder said in a phone interview.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, there are specific procedures a jury needs to follow during a capital trial. Holder said district attorneys can decline to pursue the death penalty and instruct their offices accordingly, which Lacey has chosen not to do.

Holder said Lacey’s pursuit of the death penalty is extreme and feeds into a systemically racist and procedurally unfair process. She’d rather see the millions of dollars spent on prosecuting death penalty cases go to bias training for officers or social equity programs for communities that have been affected by racial injustice.

“Social scientists and behavioral scientists have evaluated the efficacy of the death penalty and found there is an overwhelming agreement that it’s not an effective deterrent,” said Holder.

The ACLU estimates LA County has spent $48.4 million since 2000 pursuing death penalty convictions.  Lacey – the first female and first black DA in LA County history – is up for re-election in 2020.

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