LA County Loves the Death Penalty

As California enters the next phase of its debate over the death penalty with a moratorium instituted by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles County needs to reckon with its contributions to the packed halls of death row.

Although the densely inhabited LA County makes up 25 percent of the state’s total population, it accounts for 31 percent of death row inmates. And the sheer quantity of people juries have sent to death row isn’t the only problem. So is their race, according to an analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union.

More states are ending the death penalty, whether through ballot measures, moratoria or collective decisions to stop seeking it in criminal cases. In California, voters have been asked about ending the death penalty multiple times. And polls show the majority of Californians thinks it should be replaced with options, such as life in prison. The governor’s decision to dismantle the apparatus of the death penalty put it on hold through his term — or at least through lawsuits pushing to restore it.

But there are still incarcerated people on death row, and more can continue to head there even if prisons cannot actually execute people. As of March 2019, there are 737 people on California’s death row, making it the largest in the Western hemisphere. The state’s sheer size helps to explain this, as does the fact that the death row apparatus moves extremely slowly. People can spend decades waiting for their executions, and they’re more prone to dying before they ever see the execution chamber.

More than 200 of those people are from LA County. And District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who has served in that role since 2012, is responsible for 22 of those convictions. Every single one was Latinx, Black or Asian-American.

Notably, victims in 36 percent of these cases were white, even though white people make up 12 percent of homicide victims in the county at large. The ACLU says there are serious questions about the fitness of their legal representation in cases where defendants did not have enough money to pay for their own attorneys. One defendant’s lawyer notably fell asleep, repeatedly, during the trial.

The Guardian reports that administering death penalty trials is extremely expensive, costing upward of a million dollars. These are resources that could go to a wide variety of legal services and civil purposes — including exploring restorative justice, outreach and education for the public and legal research.

LA County’s district attorneys insist they’re just following the law — and that short of a formal legal repeal, they have to consider the death penalty as an option in cases where it might be merited. But that doesn’t explain the suspicious racial pattern in death penalty cases, nor does it provide an explanation for why so many of these cases involve white victims.

Los Angeles sends a disproportionate number of people to death row not just in California, but across the nation as a whole. It’s more bloodthirsty than states like Texas, which people commonly associate with conservative attitudes about the death penalty.

The fact that officials are continuing to pursue it is a suggestion that perhaps the state needs to keep trying with ballot initiatives to end the death penalty once and for all. With Democrats mobilized to defeat Donald Trump, 2020 would be an excellent year to capitalize on progressive engagement with electoral politics and try again.

Photo credit: John Salzarulo/Getty Images

62 comments

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Danuta Watola
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