I do not support the use of the death penalty on moral and practical grounds. Not once in my nine years as District Attorney of San Francisco did my office seek the death penalty. I campaigned against the death penalty when Prop. 34 was introduced in 2012, and again in 2016 when Prop 62 was on the ballot. The death penalty is deeply flawed and we are better off without it.
The Death Penalty Is a Failed and Costly Policy That Does Not Deter Violent Crime
I was not always an opponent of the death penalty, but after decades in law enforcement I have come to realize that the death penalty does not make us safer as a community. Instead, it drains limited public safety resources that could be better used on programs that actually improve the quality of life and safety for all of our communities.
Since the Briggs Initiative reinstated the death penalty in California in 1978, taxpayers have spent approximately $4 billion on a death penalty system that has resulted in just 13 executions. Yet, study after study shows us that the death penalty fails to deliver on its promise of improving public safety. In fact, when surveyed, two-thirds of police chiefs said they did not believe the death penalty significantly reduces homicides. A 2009 survey of professional criminologists found that 88% rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, and according to the National Research Council, studies claiming a deterrent effect are “fundamentally flawed” and should not be used to make policy decisions. If we were to redirect the money currently spent on the death penalty into successful, data-driven programs that effectively address the root causes of crime, decrease recidivism, and help the families impacted by violence, we would be better off.
In 2019, two justices of the California Supreme Court described the death penalty as “an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all.” This conclusion echoes the findings of the blue ribbon non-partisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which identified a host of flaws in the system rendering it a dysfunctional disaster. With almost 730 men and women on death row, and with no executions in the past 14 years, the one thing on which many opponents and supporters now agree is that the system of capital punishment in this state is dysfunctional and has failed miserably by every measure.
The Death Penalty Is Fatally Flawed, Racially Biased, and Risks Executing Innocent People
In addition to the exorbitant financial costs, the death penalty is administered in a manner that is deeply troubling.
Numerous studies have found that race influences who is sentenced to die in this country and in California; this includes both the race of the defendant and the race of the victims. Fifty-eight percent of death row prisoners in the United States are people of color and in California the figure is an astonishing sixty-six percent. A 2005 study published in the Santa Clara Law Review found that those who kill white victims are three times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill African-Americans, and four times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill Latinos. This same study found that a person convicted of a crime is three times more likely to be sentenced to die if the crime was committed in a predominantly white, rural community rather than a diverse, urban area.
A pattern of troubling racial disparities also exists in Los Angeles County. Since 2012, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has secured the death penalty against 23 defendants, 22 of whom are people of color (13 Latinx defendants, eight black defendants, and one Asian defendant). Only one white defendant has received the death penalty in this time.
The system also unfairly targets individuals who cannot afford access to the best legal resources. Of those defendants sentenced to death in Los Angeles County since 2012, over a third were represented by legal counsel who had prior or subsequent serious ethical or misconduct charges; one had a lawyer who presented no opening statement, put on no defense at all during the guilt phase, and repeatedly fell asleep during the trial; and one had no lawyer at all, instead representing himself. Inadequate defense is also a leading cause of wrongful conviction.
Los Angeles County continues to churn out death sentences at an astonishing rate, dwarfing almost every other county in the United States. Since 2012, L.A. has consistently been one of the nation’s most prolific counties in sentencing new inmates to death, surpassing the states of Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana combined.
Given all the flaws in the death penalty system, there is a serious risk of executing innocent people. Since 1973, at least 167 persons facing execution have been exonerated with evidence of their innocence, including five in California. Some of these condemned men and women were exonerated within mere days or even hours of their scheduled executions. Vicente Benavides, who was released from death row in California in 2018, served 25 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. If not for the legal delays caused by challenges to lethal injection, he could have been executed. Several investigations have also provided substantial evidence that innocent people have been executed. These include Cameron Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 despite the existence of new evidence showing that the fire that caused the tragic death of his three daughters was actually an accident, not arson.
Prop 66 Has Only Made Things Worse
In 2016, recognizing the serious flaws in the death penalty system, proponents of capital punishment made false and misleading promises to induce voters to pass Prop 66. But the initiative has failed to achieve any of its aims. Justice Goodwin Liu recently stated that Prop 66 “promised more than the system can deliver.” Santa Clara University School of Law Professor Gerard Uelman, who served as executive director of the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, said he “became intimately familiar with the dysfunction and delays associated with California’s death penalty. Prop. 66 will not speed up the death penalty. It will add more layers of government bureaucracy, causing even more delay.”
Prop 66 has a disproportionate impact on Los Angeles County because it has the largest death row population in California. Prop. 66 is spreading the dysfunction caused by a backlog of death cases to the lower appellate courts without relieving the burdens on the Supreme Court. As a result, all appeals, both civil and criminal, will be delayed. Justin Brooks, the Director of the California Innocence Project, says he is “all too aware of how innocent people have been wrongfully convicted in our state, and some have even been condemned to die.” Prop 66 will increase California’s risk of executing an innocent person because it limits the ability to present new evidence of innocence and removes other important safeguards that are in place to ensure that we don’t make a serious mistake.
Los Angeles Voters Want Change
A majority of voters in Los Angeles County supported ballot measures in 2012 and 2016 to repeal the state’s death penalty. A March 2019 Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 62% of Los Angeles County voters prefer life in prison over the death penalty. It is clear that Los Angeles voters want a change. I believe that Los Angeles can shed its outlier status on this issue and can lead the way in finding more effective and humane responses to violence that promote justice, accountability, and healing.
It’s Time to End the Use of the Death Penalty & Resentence Those Condemned to Death
I oppose using the death penalty under any circumstance. If elected, however, we will go further, and I will not seek an execution date for any person already on death row. I will actively support the Governor’s moratorium on executions. I will also embark upon a thorough review of every existing death penalty case from Los Angeles County. Most importantly, I will work collaboratively with various stakeholders to get as many of the 229 people currently on death row from Los Angeles County resentenced to a sentence other than death. I will do this by utilizing every legal avenue available to me including; exercising my discretion to drop the death penalty in ongoing cases that have been reversed on guilt or penalty phase, by collaborating with the attorney general to concede habeas petitions with meritorious claims, and by working with the governor and the courts where necessary to pursue fair and just sentences in as many cases as legally possible.