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December 30, 2011

Assessing reasons for California's steep drop in death sentences in 2011

67058367The Los Angeles Times has this new piece noting the signficant drop in California in the number of new death sentences handed down in 2011.  The piece is headlined "Annual total of death sentences in California falls to 10: The prior two years had each seen capital punishment ordered for 29 criminals. Analysts say a broken appeals process is driving the trend, and some observers cite tight budgets prosecutors face."  Here are excerpts:

The number of death sentences issued in California dropped this year to 10, one of the lowest levels since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978.  The decline, from 29 in each of the last two years, may signal that the decades-long appeals process for capital convictions and a 6-year-old moratorium on executions have encouraged prosecutors to seek life sentences without the possibility of parole in more murder cases....

Legal analysts on both sides of the debate say a broken appeals process is driving the trend.  Prosecutors faced with tight budgets have had to make tough choices about the time and money needed to pursue a death sentence, while some family members of murder victims have pressed them to pursue the swifter justice of lifelong imprisonment with no chance of getting out....

Some of the decrease in death sentences can be attributed to the electoral success of district attorney candidates who pledged to be more discerning in deciding which homicides should be prosecuted as capital cases.  Riverside County imposed just two death sentences this year, compared with six in 2010.  Dist. Atty. Paul Zellerbach said he is reviewing 56 capital cases that were pending when he took office in January....

Legal experts who monitor capital punishment say the budget cuts imposed on local governments across the state have played a role in discouraging prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  "It would be stunning if prosecutors were not impacted by these developments.  The financial issues just have to weigh significantly in some cases because prosecutors, defense lawyers and everyone involved in government in California has had to make extraordinarily difficult choices about how to spend the resources they have, and they are well aware of what capital cases cost," said Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor and founder of the school's death penalty clinic....

Those who support maintaining the death penalty as a sentencing option express frustration with a system that has carried out only 13 executions in 34 years. "The fact that executions aren't being carried out has a discouraging effect" on prosecutors' willingness to push for a death penalty, said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The time and cost of prosecution and appeals continue to increase "as defendants and defense lawyers drag things out," he said.

Scheidegger said the state needs to keep the death penalty as an option because it causes some defendants to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole, leverage that wouldn't exist without the threat of execution.

That threat may remain illusory for years. A Marin County judge earlier this month threw out newly drafted lethal injection procedures, ruling that state officials ignored the law's requirement of meaningful public participation in the process. The judge also criticized corrections officials for failing to consider a one-drug execution method used by some states.

Nationwide, the number of new death sentences in 2011 fell to 78 from last year's 112, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit archive run by advocates of abolition. That was the lowest sentencing level since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

December 30, 2011 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

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