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February 21, 2008

Breaking news: prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree on the death penalty

Though the title of this post is snarky, this new article in the Los Angeles Times — headlined "Lawyers divided on death penalty system: Prosecutors and defense attorneys tell a state panel that the system is dysfunctional but differ on solutions" — is still worthy of a close read.  Of particular interest, as detailed in these excerpts, is the on-going challenge of gathering effective data on capital case administration: 

During a hearing in Los Angeles before a state reform commission, prosecutors called for quicker appeals and amending the state Constitution to permit the California state Supreme Court to transfer some of the initial review of cases to state appeals courts.

Defense attorneys opposed the proposal, saying it would make the process more cumbersome. Instead, they asked that the state pare the list of crimes that qualify for the death penalty and provide more funding for lawyers who represent accused killers....

California has the nation's largest death row, with 669 condemned inmates, but has held only 13 executions since reinstating the death penalty in 1978.  It takes as long as 24 years for some killers to complete their appeals before execution.

Before the hearing, two professors from Pepperdine Law School attempted to survey district attorneys around the state to learn how they decide when to seek the death penalty.  But they met with little cooperation. On Wednesday, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos defended his resistance to the study.

"If you ask us to give detailed public information on each case, you will create a chilling effect" on how those decisions are made and it might lead to increased pressure on prosecutors from victims groups and police officers to seek the death penalty more often, Ramos said.  He also said that his office was very restrained in seeking death sentences and that he has "lost sleep" over what he called the "ultimate decision" a prosecutor can make: "taking someone's life." "We had 142 murders in the county in 2007" but sought the death penalty in only one of them after top staff in the office reviewed the cases.

In other words, apparently law professors and others apparently just cannot handle the truth about prosecutorial decision-making in capital cases.

February 21, 2008 at 11:31 AM | Permalink


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For the life of me, I cannot fathom why a prosecutor would "lose sleep" over whether to seek death for a murderer. If I were a prosecutor, I would lose sleep over the possibility of guilt/innocence mistakes. Certainly, it is far more of a problem to win a false conviction or to be on the losing end of a false acquittal. Ramos is simply squeamish, it seems.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 21, 2008 12:15:58 PM

federalist: prosecutors, like most people -- but, apparently, unlike yourself -- are human beings. You know, creatures evolved to possess a reasoning intellect, empathy, and morals.

Or are you just a 12 year old playing on the internet and avoiding your arithmetic lessons? Perhaps one day you'll develop beyond your youthful obsession for death and killing. Or, perhaps, like Dr. Frist you'll grow up to torture kitties and become a Senator.

Posted by: wow | Feb 21, 2008 12:50:14 PM

Doug, suppose you received a survey request from someone you knew to be a rabid opponent of tenure for faculty, who was doing research driven by an agenda to destroy the tenure system, and in whose objectivity you had no confidence at all. Would you cooperate and complete the survey?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 21, 2008 12:52:17 PM

Oh, I am not human because I wouldn't get that worked up over a decision to seek death for murder. Let's not forget that death has been a punishment for murder throughout human history, so clearly I have a lot of company.

I would worry far more about a rapist that got off because I didn't do my job as thoroughly as I could or whether I helped put an innocent man behind bars.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 21, 2008 12:58:48 PM

Interesting, Kent, that you analogize death penalty choices by prosecutors to job security for academics. If, as you analogy suggests, you think prosecutors' jobs depend on the death penalty, then your analogy is apt. But the prosecutor in this story says he struggles with his death penalty choices, while I do not struggle at all to defend the virtues of tenure to allow me to do my job well.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 21, 2008 4:38:52 PM

No, I wasn't referring to Ramos' stated reasons for not cooperating with the survey, and there will certainly be no shortage of crime to prosecute regardless of the death penalty. I was asking you if you would cooperate with a survey that you knew was agenda-driven and contrary to your position.

You didn't answer the question.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 21, 2008 4:46:03 PM

Wouldn't a thorough answer from Ramos and others invalidate any underlying agenda? If they supply meaningful criteria related to how they choose to use the death penalty, then you have a much weaker argument that such decisions are arbitrary (thereby rendering the whole system unconstitutional).

Posted by: JustClerk | Feb 22, 2008 8:01:38 AM

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